Gov’t scrambles to find funding for ECQ aid

By: Ben O. de Vera, Leila B. Salaverria - Philippine Daily Inquirer | July 31,2021 - 07:46 AM

| Philippine Daily Inquirer file photo / Niño Jesus Orbeta

With another round of the strictest lockdown to be imposed in Metro Manila, the government on Friday scrambled to find the money to compensate those who would temporarily lose their jobs or means of livelihood with the expected closure of some businesses.

The country’s chief economist warned of hundreds of billions in pesos in losses resulting from the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila from Aug. 6 to Aug. 20, on top of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who would slide to temporary poverty.

With the threat of community transmission of the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, the government is again struggling to contain COVID-19 with another cycle of lockdown.

This would be the third ECQ in the National Capital Region (NCR) since the pandemic was declared in early 2020. The first and longest was from March 16 to May 15, 2020, which crippled the economy. The second was from March 29 to April 11 this year during a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said in a text message to the Inquirer that officials were awaiting the Office of the President’s directive on the doleouts.

Asked whether there were funds for cash aid, Avisado replied: “We’re looking for where we could get some.”

President Duterte approved a P1,000 cash aid per person and a maximum of P4,000 per family in areas under ECQ, his spokesperson Harry Roque said on Thursday.

Roque said the money would come from the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation program.

Under ECQ, only essential businesses would be allowed to fully operate and the movement of the general public would be limited in NCR. New stricter rules would also be imposed from July 30 to Aug. 5 when NCR would be under general community quarantine “with heightened and additional restrictions,” Roque said on Friday.

“This was a difficult decision. But the President said that even if we made a hard and bitter decision, this is for the good of all,” he said when he announced the ECQ status for NCR on television.

Roque explained that the lockdown was not imposed immediately because the health-care system could still handle the COVID-19 cases.

Savings being assessed

“But since the Delta variant is three times more transmissible, we expect that [the cases] will increase. We should use this one week [before the lockdown] to prepare for what we would do during the two-week ECQ,” he said.

Roque said Gingoog City, Iloilo City, Iloilo province and Cagayan de Oro City, which are now under ECQ, would remain in that quarantine category until Aug. 7.

Avisado said the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) was assessing the amount of savings that government agencies could cough up under Administrative Order No. 41. The order mandates agencies to identify items for which funding had already been released under their respective continuing 2020 budgets but were unobligated as of May 15 this year.

Unobligated appropriations refer to contracts to implement projects but not yet awarded, hence the money was unspent and set aside.

Hope for partial reversal

Budget Undersecretary Rolando Toledo said the technical working group on social amelioration met on Friday to determine how much cash could be granted to affected households in areas under ECQ.

House Assistant Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said that money for aid could be taken from, among others, the billions of pesos allocated to the barangay development fund of the anticommunist insurgency task force.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said each week of ECQ in Metro Manila would cost the economy P105 billion in foregone output.

Citing figures from the National Economic and Development Authority, which he heads, the government’s chief economist added that a week of ECQ would push 177,000 more Filipinos into poverty and 444,000 would temporarily lose their jobs.

But Chua said the detrimental effects of ECQ “can be partly reversed if we use the [next] three weeks to accelerate vaccination of everyone in the high-risk areas.”

“This way, the ECQ will be an investment to pave the way for a recovery once we control the Delta spread,” Chua said, adding that a cash aid will mitigate the lockdown’s negative impact. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases said the vaccination of senior citizens and people with comorbidities should be ramped up to reduce severe effects of the disease and fatalities.

It also said the National Task Force Vaccine Cluster should ensure sufficient vaccine supply of up to 4 million doses for NCR, and an additional 2.5 million doses for Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, subject to the availability of supply.

Vaccination is key

Both the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) and the Makati Business Club also underscored the importance of vaccination during the lockdown.

“While this will further hurt our struggling businesses, we expect the government to mitigate the damage by increasing vaccine supply and ensuring that vaccination programs continue even under ECQ, as this is really the solution to controlling the pandemic,” MAP said.

Francisco Lim, president of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, welcomed the ECQ as a preemptive move against a potential surge.

Imperative

Lars Wittig, newly elected president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, said what was imperative was “to stabilize our current socioeconomic situation by ensuring effective and timely implementation of the National Immunization Program” while allowing unhampered operations of critical economic activities.

Speaker Lord Allan Velasco again appealed to the Senate to pass the Bayanihan to Arise As One Act (Bayanihan 3), a P401-billion package that includes a provision for a P2,000-cash aid.

The measure passed by the House in June, also adds funding for COVID-19 vaccine procurement, testing and subsidies to affected sectors, and a P30-billion additional cash subsidy for households in areas under ECQ. —WITH REPORTS FROM ROY STEPHEN C. CANIVEL, JULIE M. AURELIO AND ANA ROA, INQUIRER RESEARCH

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TAGS: COVID-19, ECQ aid, government aid, Metro Manila

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