Recycled Php27.1 B COVID-19 response package betrays govt complacency

March 18, 2020

by IBON Foundation

Research group IBON said that the Duterte administration’s Php27.1 billion package of so-called priority actions exposes its complacency in dealing with the pandemic and the disruption to people’s livelihoods. The group said that this is just another result of the government’s overly militarist mindset where forceful action is crudely seen as decisive action. The spread of COVID-19 needs much more government resources and a much more holistic approach.

When the Luzon lockdown was declared, Pres. Duterte’s economic team announced a “package of priority actions”. This covers Php3.1 billion directly to “stop the spread of COVID-19”; Php2 billion from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) for affected establishments and workers; Php3 billion from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) for scholarship programs; Php2.8 billion from the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Credit Policy Council (DA-ACPC) for zero interest loans to farmers and fisherfolk; Php1 billion from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for microfinancing; Php1.2 billion from the Social Security System (SSS) for dislocated workers; and Php14 billion from the Department of Tourism (DOT) for the tourism industry.

IBON said however that the value of the package in itself is grossly disproportionate to the scale of the emergency facing the country. The package’s priorities are also distorted with a peculiar stress on tourism. Worse, it appears that most of the response package are just recycled existing programs and not new and additional as demanded by the suddenly adverse public health situation since the 2020 budget was passed, said the group.

The Department of Health (DOH) said that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country may peak to as much as 75,000 within three months. This will happen amid a health system with only 101,688 hospital beds of which only less than half (47%) are government beds. IBON, meanwhile, estimates that some 11 million workers and informal earners will be displaced by the lockdown just in Luzon.

The Php14 billion DOT budget item is the largest and takes up 52% or more than half of the package, noted the group. This is five times the size of the Php3.1 billion allotted for containing the spread of COVID-19. It is unclear how this is expected to contribute to stopping the spread of the virus and also why the tourism sector was given such high priority among the millions of affected.

IBON observed that other items appear to all be recycled government programs merely repackaged as a COVID-19 response. The group said that this is extremely deceitful and exposes how the government is insensitively dragging its feet, at the very least, and blindly complacent about the scale of the problem, at worst.

The Php2 billion DOLE item appears to just be a portion of its existing Php9.5 billion budget for “social protection for vulnerable workers” as already contained in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA). This does not reflect any additional concern by the DOLE of the impact of COVID-19 in general and the Luzon lockdown in particular, said the group.

Likewise, the Php3 billion TESDA item seems to just be a recycling of the existing Php3.1 billion “Training for Work Scholarship Program” in the 2020 GAA, said IBON. Yet trainings are presumably among activities suspended during the lockdown. This is aside from the uncertainty of their ultimate effect on improving welfare and employment prospects amid a growing economic crisis.

IBON said that the Php2.8 billion DA-ACPC item meanwhile appears to just be a recycling of its existing Php2.5 billion Expanded Survival and Recovery (SURE) Aid Program targeted for some 170,000 small rice farmers in Central Luzon. Similarly, the Php1 billion DTI item appears to just refer to a portion of its existing Pondo sa Pagbabago at Pag-Asenso (P3) which has funding of about Php1.5 billion.

The group said that the government’s complacency is also evident in how the economic managers are downplaying the situation and said that “the impact… is expected to be limited”. Socioeconomic planning Sec. Ernesto Pernia only granted “a transitory impact on the economy”. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) governor Benjamin Diokno, meanwhile, said “there is no reason to believe that the COVID-19 crisis could severely cut the Philippine growth momentum”.

Such dismissiveness by the Duterte administration only adds to the COVID-19 threat to the economy and especially the well-being of Filipinos, said IBON. The public, civil society groups, and even scattered responsible government officials have already called out perceived serious ineptitude.

IBON said that beyond harsh population control measures, the administration needs to give much more attention to monitoring and treating cases, widescale public education, and ensuring the incomes and welfare of displaced workers and informal sector earners. Among others, this can include freezing workers’ employment status, continuous pay and emergency benefits, and a Php10,000 unconditional cash transfer (UCT) at least for those among the poorest 10 million families of the country living in Luzon. The Php5,000 in financial assistance recently announced by the DOLE is a good start if provided expediently, said the group.