The government has more funds it can use to address the continuing spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and provide immediate relief to the people, said labor NGOs Crispin B. Beltran Resource Center (CBBRC) and Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER) in a joint statement on Easter Sunday.
“For decades, civil society organizations have been calling for realignment of military and intelligence budget towards social services and social protection measures for Filipinos. Social protection systems and accessible social services are vital in building resiliency and are effective stabilizers in times of crises. As we’ve earlier emphasized, community quarantine is necessary but to what extent remains unclear and certain considerations were missed, including effective financing of the overall impact and policy responses,” EILER Executive Director Rochelle Porras said.
According to the labor NGOs, the overly broad and vague emergency powers given to the President through the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, has fallen short of radically mobilizing billions of pesos that are needed to contain the pandemic and to provide safety nets to the worsening social and economic impacts. EILER and CBBRC pointed out that almost a month after the lock downs, the ECQ is still focused strictly and solely on movement of the people, leaving out vital scientific and medical aspects that ultimately would need funding to efficiently provide the 18 million Filipino households it identified with adequate and quality social services and effectively control the impact of the virus.
“It’s been weeks and the government has fallen behind in strengthening health, economic and social measures to combat the threat of COVID-19,” Porras added.
No to cover-up; yes to increasing budget for improving public health system and other social services
Under the Constitution, the President can only realign savings from appropriations in the approved budget of the Executive branch. However, the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act approved last month has allowed the President to reallocate, realign, and reprogram at least P275-billion package from the national budget in response to the pandemic. Duterte said that the amount is not enough and on April 6, instructed Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez to find government funds in addition to what was initially proposed under the Bayanihan Law.
Whether covering up for the dismal performance in responding to the pandemic (COVID-19 spread globally in January) or total disregard for peoples’ welfare, the fact is that the government has existing resources under the General Appropriations Act (GAA) which could’ve been allotted for greater good. The whopping P379.4-billion defense and police funds and the combined appropriation for intelligence, confidential and counter-insurgency program funds worth P13.4-billion indicate overspending on militarization compared to P101-billion actual budget for the Department of Health. There is also the P13-billion Special Purpose Funds (SPFs) contingency budget and the P451-billion allotment on debt service on interest payments. Altogether, these would pool a total of P856.8-billion as potential COVID-19 response funds, out of the existing P4.1-trillion budget, to boost the public health system and other social services.
For perspective, several untapped funds can further be examined. These include P213-billion unprogrammed appropriations and the P102-billion worth of dividends from 12 GOCCs. There is also the P989.3-billion budget for the ambitious Build, Build, Build which remains far from achieving its 75 projects given the circumstances.
In terms of increased borrowing, Finance Assistant Secretary and Spokesperson Antonio “Tony” Lambino II earlier announced that the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas will open a P300-billion credit line. The Asian Development Bank has approved a US$3-million (P152.1-million) grant to support government efforts against COVID-19. In addition, the World Bank has also approved a US$500-million (P25.35-billion) policy loan to support disaster response and recovery including urgent needs created by the COVID-19 crisis.
“Clearer guidelines, concrete plans, and political will are all needed, and the people’s welfare must be the top priority in addressing the pandemic. The government has all the resources it needs even without the emergency powers. Simply put, it has to just act quickly, do its job and do it well,” Porras concluded.