President Duterte initially belittled the COVID-19 threat, dismissively saying “it will just die a natural death.” The President compounded this by refusing to ban travelers from China where the virus originated, saying such a ban would be “xenophobia.” Thousands of Chinese POGO workers in Metro Manila left for China for the lunar new year on Jan. 25, 2020. Many came back to the Philippines before the ban on Chinese travelers took effect on Feb. 3, 2020.
Only when the President was shown alarming projections of a rapid spread of COVID-19 in Metro Manila did he suddenly reverse course, imposing a strict lockdown starting March 15, 2020. The President then asked Congress for emergency powers to solve the COVID-19 crisis, and Congress swiftly granted him almost all that he asked.
The President has to take initial responsibility for the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Now that he has the emergency powers he asked, any failure to contain the spread of COVID-19 will be his full responsibility.
The aim of the lockdown in Metro Manila, with 13 million residents, is to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 through physical distancing. This will prevent a spike in infections, flattening the inverted U curve that shows a steep infection rate. Flattening the curve prevents hospitals from being overwhelmed with sick people. This allows hospitals to treat the most serious cases, keeping the mortality rate down.
Flattening the curve will not reduce the total infections but will spread infections over a longer period. This buys time for scientists to develop a treatment, and perhaps even a vaccine. However, a vaccine will take 12 to 18 months, and it is not even certain that a vaccine can be developed for a coronavirus like COVID-19. To date, no vaccine has been developed for any of the family of coronaviruses, although better science may change that.
A lockdown means all economic activities are suspended. In a place like Metro Manila, a lockdown raises one huge problem: how to feed 11.7 million people belonging to classes C, D and E, who depend on their daily income, daily wage or bi-monthly salary to put food on the table. Unless these 11.7 million people are fed during the lockdown, there will be food riots and violence.
Feeding 11.7 million people requires a P47-billion food subsidy, computed at P1,000 per person per week for four weeks until the end of the lockdown on April 14, 2020. In contrast, the new emergency powers law provides a maximum of only P500 per person per week, hardly enough for survival. Where will the President get the P47 billion? The President has the constitutional power to realign savings in the P4.1 trillion 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA). By declaring existing appropriations in the GAA abandoned due to the COVID-19 crisis, the President can raise P47 billion in savings to augment the calamity fund.
The President, however, decided to raise the stakes. He asked Congress for emergency powers to “reprogram, reallocate and realign” appropriations in the 2019 and 2020 GAAs. This was totally unnecessary, because the President already has the constitutional power to realign savings in the GAA.
Congress cannot grant the President the power to “reprogram” or “reallocate” funds in the GAA. The Constitution states that “no law shall be passed authorizing any transfer of appropriations,” unless it is through the President’s power to realign savings. The request to “reprogram” and “reallocate” appropriations is not only unconstitutional, it is also unnecessary.
The President also requested for the power to “take over” temporarily public utilities and businesses affected with public interest. There was, naturally, a strong opposition to this request. Businesses affected with public interest would include radio and television stations. Thankfully, Congress had the good sense to reject this request.
Congress granted the President the power to “direct the operation” of private hospitals. Who in government has more competence than private sector administrators to “direct the operation” of private hospitals? Will government administrators prioritize government personnel in testing for COVID-19 and in admission to private hospitals? This power, though minor, is fraught with mischief.
The President has now the emergency powers he asked and has thanked Congress for this. He has taken full responsibility to solve the COVID-19 crisis. The nation now expects him to solve this crisis without further excuses.