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The COVID-19 special power law: What it contains

By: Fernando Fajardo - Columnist/CDN Digital | March 25,2020 - 07:00 AM

COVID-19: Fernando Fajardo's talks about COVID-19 and special power of the President.

 

The “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” as the measure was finally called was passed first by the House of Representatives using the version coming from the Senate. The Senate version changed some of the proposals coming from the Office of the President requesting Congress to pass a law declaring the existence of a national emergency arising from the COVID-19 outbreak and granting the President additional powers to address the outbreak. 

The use of the Senate version by the lower house allowed the speedy passage of the bill without need for the Senate and House to hold a bicameral conference. The bill was certified as urgent by the President.

Key provisions

As I gathered from the CNN Philippine Staff Report yesterday, the key provisions of the approved measures are as follows:

First is to give the President the power to reshuffle savings within the executive department in the 2020 General Appropriations Act to address the crisis and deliver aid to the affected communities. This means that the President could not touch the budget for the Judiciary and the Legislative body.

The second is to give the president authority to provide an emergency subsidy to 18 million low-income households worth between ₱5,000 and ₱8,000 for a month to two months, and provide compensation of ₱100,000 to public and private health workers who may contract severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection while in their line of duty. Health workers who may die while fighting the pandemic will be compensated ₱1 million.

The third is to give the President the power to “direct the operation” of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities including passenger vessels and other establishments to house health workers, assign quarantine areas, and give medical relief.

The approved measure, however, also states that the President may still “take over” their operations if these enterprises are no longer capable of operating “subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution”.

Take-over

In the original proposal from the Office of the President, the intention was for the government to “temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business affected with public interest to be used in addressing the needs of the public during the COVID-19 emergency as determined by the President”. The industries covered by the take-over or direct operation by the government included a non-exhaustive list. Privately owned hotels, public transportation, and telecommunications entities are among them.

The particular proviso on the take-over was strongly criticized when the contents of the President’s request became known to the public, hence, the change to mere direct operation by the government but only for specific industries mentioned above.

In the approved measure, the President may now also ensure that local government units are acting in line with the national government’s policy and impose corresponding penalties if they disobey directives on quarantine protocols.

The President’s power will be in full force for only three months, unless extended by Congress, or withdrawn sooner via a concurrent resolution.

Emergency subsidies

As for emergency subsidies to 18 million low-income households worth between ₱5,000 and ₱8,000 for a month to two months, South China Morning Post’s Raissa Robles reported that the law when signed will free up to P275 billion of this year’s national budget, of which P200 billion will be used to fund the emergency subsidies. The remaining P75 billion would be for coronavirus testing and processing, personal protective equipment for those on the front lines, and to construct or lease temporary hospitals and housing for frontline health workers.

I wonder, however, where the government got the number for 18 million low-income households targeted for emergency subsidies that House Ways and Means Chair Joey Salceda also mentioned in his aide-de-memoire addressed to the House Leadership yesterday.

Based on the estimated 110 million population of the country presently and an average of 5.5 persons per household, we only have 20 million households both rich and poor included. The 18 million targeted for emergency subsidy would mean covering up to 90 percent of our households. This is too much since it would include even wealthy ones or those above the middle class although they are also affected by the quarantine or lockdown in one way or another. 

The government, therefore, is probably referring to 18 million low-income individuals, not families. In that case, the coverage is only 16 percent of our 110 million estimated total population. This figure turns out to be the same as the official poverty incidence rate of our population as determined by the government using the 2018 Family Income and Expenditure Survey.

The Philippine Statistics Authority reported that the full year 2018 poverty incidence among population, or the proportion of poor Filipinos whose per capita income is not sufficient to meet their basic food and non-food needs, was estimated at 16.6 percent. This translates to 17.6 million Filipinos who lived below the poverty threshold estimated at P10,727, on average, for a family of five per month in 2018. 

However, we also know that many people do not believe the official data on poverty threshold used by the government in determining who are in poverty or not. That makes the 18 million individuals targeted for emergency subsidies a low target.

Now which is which? Am I wrong in my math and figures? /dbs

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