Fight vs. Covid-19 takes center stage in Duterte's 4th year

Philippine News Agency
December 30, 2020

TALK TO THE PEOPLE. President Rodrigo Duterte presides over a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members before his talk to the people at Malacañan Palace on Dec. 28, 2020. Duterte’s meeting with the task force and his talk to the people are held every Monday to keep the people updated on the government’s response to the pandemic. (Presidential photo)

MANILA – Just like other governments in the world grappling with the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, the Duterte administration’s fight against the deadly virus got off to a rough start but started showing improvements after recalibrating its strategy by balancing the effective control of the disease, as well as the socioeconomic costs.

Malacañang has released at least 33 coronavirus-related issuances, including Proclamation 922, which President Rodrigo Duterte signed on March 8 to declare a State of Public Health Emergency to mobilize government and non-government agencies to respond to the impending health crisis.

"The declaration of a State of Public Health Emergency would capacitate government agencies and (local government units) to immediately act to prevent loss of life, utilize appropriate resources to implement urgent and critical measures to contain or prevent the spread of Covid-19, mitigate its effects and impact to the community, and prevent serious disruption of the functioning of the government and the community," the proclamation read.

On March 16, Duterte placed the entire Luzon under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) until April 12.

On the same day, he signed Proclamation 929 declaring a state of calamity throughout the country after health authorities confirmed that community-based transmission of Covid-19 has already occurred.

"Such declaration will, among others, afford the national government, as well as LGUs ample latitude to utilize appropriate funds, including the Quick Response Fund, in their disaster preparedness and response efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 and to continue to provide basic services to the affected population,” it read.

Duterte’s efforts in leading the fight against Covid-19 earned him a 91 percent performance and trust rating in a survey conducted by Pulse Asia from September 14 to 20.

Only 5 percent disapproved of Duterte’s performance while 5 percent were undecided.

As for trust, 6 percent were undecided while 3 percent had small or no trust.

In another Pulse Asia survey conducted on the same dates, 84 percent of Filipinos were said to have a "positive opinion" on the efforts of Duterte and his government to control the spread of Covid-19 and provide assistance to those who lost their livelihood due to the pandemic.

Only 6 percent registered disapproval of the government’s response, while 10 percent expressed ambivalence.

Meanwhile, only 7 percent expressed disapproval in providing assistance, while 9 percent registered ambivalence.

Bayanihan laws

To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, Duterte signed Republic Act (RA) 11469, also known as the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act of 2020 (Bayanihan 1), a day after Congress passed the bill on March 24.

Under the law, Duterte, for a limited time, was given special powers, including reallocation of government funds to address the prevailing health crisis.

With the law in effect, the government was given the authority to expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits to facilitate prompt testing and immediate isolation and treatment of patients.

Health care workers, considered as among the front-liners in the fight against Covid-19, had to be provided with Covid-19 special risk allowances in addition to their hazard pay.

Their Covid-19-related medical expenses were also shouldered by the government.

The government was also given the authority to provide compensation of PHP100,000 to health care workers who contracted severe Covid-19 infection while in the line of duty while PHP1 million may be provided to health care workers who die while fighting the pandemic.

Banks and other financial institutions were ordered to implement grace periods for the payment of loans without incurring interests, penalties, fees, or other charges.

In September, he signed RA 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2), which extended Duterte’s special powers for handling the pandemic and provide a PHP165.5-billion fund to address the health crisis.

The largest chunk of the budget was allotted to loans for sectors hit by the pandemic, such as micro, small, and medium-scale enterprises, transport, tourism, and agriculture.

It also provided for the government's Covid-19 health-related response.

Results of a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, conducted from September 17 to 20, found that the majority considered government actions to be adequate on three out of four areas of concern: ensuring the public has enough information on how to fight Covid-19 (71 percent), ensuring there would be extensive contact tracing (67 percent), and ensuring affordable Covid-19 testing nationwide (54 percent).

However, only 44 percent believed government actions were adequate on ensuring the provision of adequate help for people who lost their jobs/livelihood.

Cash aid

Among the most salient features of the Bayanihan 1 law was the allocation of PHP200 billion worth of emergency subsidies to fund the government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP), which granted a PHP5,000 to PHP8,000 monthly cash aid to about 18 million low-income Filipino families affected by the pandemic.

Distribution of emergency subsidies under the Social Amelioration Program (File photo)

The cash aid program was said to be the “largest financial aid package ever granted to Filipino households.”

However, the SAP encountered delays in the release and distribution of funds.

Despite hiccups, 71 percent of Filipino families said they received cash aid from the government since the start of the pandemic, according to another SWS survey conducted from September 17 to 20.

Besides the SAP, the government also had other cash aid programs for the most vulnerable sectors affected by the lockdown, such as the Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP), Tulong Panghanap-buhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD), and the Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP).

Duterte threatened to detain politicians who would engage in corruption amid the prevailing health crisis, saying that the public should never be deceived, especially in these trying times.

On November 10, he offered a cash prize worth PHP50,000 to PHP100,000 to anyone who could report dishonest government officials and their corruption activities. 

Test, Trace, Treat

In April, the government started its mass testing initiatives following the accreditation of several hospitals for Covid-19 testing.

The government had also started purchasing more rapid antibody test kits, aiming to test 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the country’s 110 million population to get a clear picture of Covid-19 infections in the Philippines.

On May 6, Duterte inked Executive Order (EO) 114 institutionalizing the “Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa” program designed to help low-income families in Metro Manila resettle in their home provinces by assisting their transition with support and incentives on transportation, subsistence, and education, among others.

“Balik Probinsya” was temporarily suspended to prioritize the short-term “Hatid Probinsya” or the provision of transportation assistance to locally stranded individuals and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) stranded in Manila due to travel restrictions imposed under community quarantine.

To ensure the health and safety of students, the President on July 17 signed RA 11480, which reschedules the start of the school year in case of a state of emergency or state of calamity.

The opening of classes for School Year 2020-2021 kicked off on October 5.

He also stood by his decision not to allow face-to-face (F2F) classes until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available in the country.

Although he initially approved pilot F2F classes in areas with low risk of Covid-19 on December 14, he withdrew this plan a week after a new strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, emerged in the UK.

In his fifth and penultimate State of the Nation Address on July 27, Duterte admitted that there were “lessons to be learned” from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The gains we achieved in the first three-and-a-half years were put to a test when the pandemic suddenly struck the global community. While I am aware that the road towards a comfortable life for all would be far easy if pandemic had not occurred and along the rest of the world we suffered,” he said.

However, Duterte said the country was able to withstand the challenges brought about by the health crisis.

He also vowed to facilitate the country’s economic recovery.

“The global scale and socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been unprecedented. Yet in the throes of this global health emergency, we have been able to withstand the headwinds generated by this coronavirus,” Duterte added.

In August, the One Hospital Command system was launched to improve the referral system and interoperability of public and private health care facilities treating patients with Covid-19.

In the same month, Duterte said he would volunteer to be among the first to be inoculated with the Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Russia, Sputnik V, to show “great trust”.

Malacañang, however, said the President would first have to receive approval from the Presidential Security Group (PSG) before he is permitted to push through.

Also in August, he formed a task force headed by the Department of Justice to investigate alleged corruption in the state-run Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) amid the pandemic.

He also ordered the implementation of a reshuffle within the state insurance firm following the appointment of new PhilHealth chief Dante Gierran.

Equal access to vaccines

On September 23, Duterte, for the first time, participated in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, where he stressed the importance of ensuring universal access to anti-Covid-19 technologies and products, including a safe and effective vaccine.

“When the world finds that vaccine, access to it must not be denied nor withheld. It should be made available to all, rich and poor nations alike, as a matter of policy. The Philippines joins our partners in the Asean and the Non-Aligned Movement in raising our collective voice: the Covid-19 vaccine must be considered a global public good. Let us be clear on this,” he said.

Duterte talks to the people to give updates on the government’s response to Covid-19. (Presidential photo)

Duterte reiterated his call for equal access to vaccines in his speech during the 37th Asean Summit on November 12, adding that the immediate priority right now should be “health security.”

“We must work together to ensure that all nations – rich or poor – will have access to safe vaccines. No one is safe until all of us are safe,” he said.

On October 27, Duterte said he favored a government-to-government transaction in the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines, saying it would prevent the risk of corruption.

In November, Duterte signed EO 118 placing a price cap on reverse transcription - polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing and test kits for Covid-19.

In signing the EO, the President recognized the priority of the state to ensure that the general public, especially those from low- and middle-income households, have “equitable access” to quality and affordable health care services, such as Covid-19 tests.

Although initially against the payment of reservation fees, Duterte on November 19 approved the recommendation to make advance payments to suppliers of potential Covid-19 vaccines.

He agreed to enter into advance market commitments (AMCs) to avoid being among the last countries to acquire a vaccine.

He approved the recommendation a day after he noted that the government must get the "best bargain" for the country's supply of Covid-19 vaccines once available.

On December 1, Duterte, through EO 121, granted authority to the Food and Drug Administration to issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines subject to several conditions.

The EUA is expected to speed up the processing time for approval of potential vaccines from six months to 21 to 28 days.

Currently, the government is negotiating with several pharmaceutical companies for the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines – Pfizer Inc., Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax Inc, Sinovac, and Sputnik V.

Every Monday night, Duterte presides over a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members before his talk to the people to give the public updates on the government’s fight against the pandemic.

In several speeches, he assured the public that the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines for Filipinos would be free from corruption.

The poorest of the poor, the elderly, uniformed personnel, health care workers, and those with comorbidities will be prioritized in the government’s immunization drive.

As Covid-19 vaccines remain unavailable, Duterte has repeatedly reminded the public to strictly observe health and safety protocols, particularly the wearing of face masks and face shields, washing of hands, and physical distancing.

He cut short his Christmas vacation to meet with government officials on the new strain of SARS-COV-2 found in the UK on December 26.

During the meeting, he suggested the creation of a new task force that would focus on the new strain.

Duterte later approved a recommendation to temporarily ban “all foreign travelers” from the UK and 19 other countries from entering the Philippines until Jan. 15, 2021.

On December 28, he signed the PHP4.5 trillion national budget for 2021 that includes funds allotted to boost government efforts to respond to the pandemic and provide critical measures to aid the economic and social sectors.

As of December 29, local health authorities reported a total of 439,016 recoveries and 23,348 active Covid-19 cases.

The virus has so far claimed 9,162 lives in the country. (PNA)

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