Ako, Ikaw, Tayo, May Pananagutan

Ako, Ikaw, Tayo May Pananagutan 2021

In December 2019, a new deadly disease was discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan after an elderly man began exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Now known as COVID-19, this virus has since spread to 223 countries, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. The said UN agency further indicates that as of January 17 of this year, the virus has already infected over 93 million people and has claimed the lives of more than two million individuals.

Closer to home, the Philippines had its first case of COVID-19 when a 38-year-old Chinese woman suffering from “mild cough” was admitted to the San Lazaro Hospital on January 30, 2020. Six days later, on February 5, health officials confirmed that the woman’s 44-year-old male companion died of COVID-19, making the Philippines the first country outside of China to record a confirmed death from the said disease. At present, almost a year after the first case was confirmed, there have been a total of 505, 939 positive cases and 10,042 deaths in the Philippines.

Government Response

Malacañang’s initial response was to belittle the threat, assuring the public that there was no cause for concern. On February 3, 2020, for instance, President Rodrigo Duterte told the press that “everything is well in the country,” adding that “even without the vaccines (COVID-19) will just die a natural death.” The Chief Executive was, in fact, so confident of his government’s ability to handle the situation that he initially refused to impose travel restrictions on passengers coming from China.

But as the number of infections continued to rise, President Duterte was finally forced to issue Proclamation No. 922 on March 8, “declaring a state of public health emergency throughout the Philippines,” a day after the Health Secretary Francisco Duque III “confirmed the local transmission of Corona Virus Disease (Covid-19) in the Philippines.” The President then undertook further action on March 15 by imposing a lockdown on Metro Manila, which was extended to the whole of Luzon two days later. 

Congress did not remain idle either, passing Republic Act No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which authorized the President to realign the budget and mobilize government resources to better address the COVID-19 threat. Signed on March 24, 2020, the law enabled Duterte to “exercise powers that are necessary and proper” and impose “temporary emergency measures” to respond to the pandemic (Section 4).

It further provided the Chief Executive with the legal authority to “direct the discontinuance of appropriated programs, projects or activities (P/A/P) of the Executive Department” so that the funds can be used “to augment the allocation for any item (that) address the COVID-19 emergency” (Section 4.v). This gave the President direct control over a budget of nearly Php275 billion from the estimated Php438 billion national budget that was earlier approved for the year 2020.

Social Amelioration Program

Out of the total amount for COVID-19 response, Php100,901,303,261.20 was allocated to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for its Social Amelioration Program (SAP). This is an emergency assistance scheme covering 18,046,093 low-income beneficiaries who are entitled to receive between Php5,000 to Php8,000 every month from March to April 2020 to cover their basic necessities such as food, medicine, and toiletries.

But in his final Report to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee dated June 22, 2020, Duterte admitted that there has been considerable “delay in the distribution of SAPs for the month of April 2020.” And to make matters worse, these backlogs remained unaddressed even after the June 5 expiration of Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.

Because of the continuing “adverse impact of COVID-19 on the socioeconomic well-being of all Filipinos” (Section 3), Duterte signed Republic Act No. 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act on September 11, thereby supplanting RA 11469. Under this new law, an additional Php6 billion has been allocated to DSWD for SAP distribution. The said amount had already transferred to the Department on October 29; but the President has yet to provide any details on how the funds were used, and how many beneficiaries have finally received their long-delayed entitlements.

In addition, RA 11494 mandates that an emergency subsidy of Php5,000 to Php8,000 will be extended to low-income families affected by barangay- or purok-wide “granular lockdowns” (Section 4.f.1). DSWD, however, later clarified, through Memorandum Circular No. 22 series of 2020 that, “a family can only be provided with emergency subsidy once regardless of the number of times their area has been declared under granular lockdown, and regardless of any extension in the declared lockdown” (emphasis in the original).

Corruption Virus

While all these efforts are needed to contain the virus and rebuild the lives of millions of affected Filipinos, it remains extremely important that the COVID-19 funds are properly accounted and ensure that each centavo is used for its intended purpose. This is even more pressing because of the corruption allegations that have hounded some of the officials of the Duterte administration.

Just last September, officials from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) were admonished in the Senate for allegedly purchasing millions of personal protective equipment (PPEs) at overpriced rates. According to records, standard PPEs typically cost between Php1,200 to Php1,500 per unit, but the equipment that DBM bought were between Php1,700 to Php2,000 per unit. This means that the procurements were probably overpriced by at least Php200 per unit or Php1 billion in total.

There was also an allegation from whistleblower Thorrsson Montes Keith that several top officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth), including its President and CEO, Ricardo Morales, had stolen Php15 billion of public funds using various fraudulent schemes. Morales denied the allegation, though he eventually resigned from his post, citing his worsening health situation.

The government’s reputation has also been undermined by continuing delays in the release of hazard pay of health workers, prompting several hospital employees to hold a protest action in front of the Department of Health (DOH) central office last December 7.

Undermining Institutional Checks

This series of anomalies could further worsen Philippines’ ranking in the corruption perception index (CPI) of Transparency International, which fell 14 notches from being the 99th least corrupt country in 2018 to being 113th by the following year. This is a steep drop of 18 notches since 2015, which was the last full year of the previous administration.

But instead of addressing this issue through a relentless campaign against wrongdoing, the government has taken several measures that undermine the public’s ability to check and monitor their officials. The first to suffer was the country’s judicial independence when Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on May 11, 2018, after eight of her fellow magistrates voted to render her 2012 appointment as null and void.

The decision was seen as politically motivated since Sereno was a known critic of the Duterte administration who opposed the President’s so-called “war on drugs” and his imposition of Martial Law in Mindanao. In fact, even as the high court was still discussing the validity of Sereno’s appointment, administration allies in the House of Representatives filed a separate impeachment case against the chief magistrate for failing to declare her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) when she was still a law professor at the University of the Philippines.

Ironically, Ombudsman Samuel Martires (a Duterte-appointee) issued a memorandum circular on September 15, 2020 restricting access to the SALNs of public officials. Martires defended his decision five days later, stating that “in the experience of the Ombudsman, the SALN was weaponized. It was used as [a] means to go against someone, anyone who is an enemy in politics.”

Responding to COVID-19 or Preparing for 2022?

Despite all these controversies, National COVID-19 Task Force chief Carlito Galvez, Jr. seems supremely confident. In fact, during a Senate hearing last January 11, Galvez assured legislators that the country’s situation is about to improve since the initial doses of the vaccine are expected to arrive within five weeks, and that the national government will begin its inoculation effort by the end of February. Those who will be prioritized include health workers and indigent senior citizens in high-risk areas, though Galvez added that mass immunization will begin in earnest once the “main bulk” of the precious vaccine becomes available by the second half of the year. 

And while he was testifying at the Senate, Malacañang announced that they have already secured 25 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine, with an initial 50,000 doses arriving this February. The Palace further admitted that the Chinese serum is the only vaccine will be administered for the first four months of its immunization drive, since supplies from Western and Indian manufacturers will not arrive until July. 

At around the same time, researchers from Brazil admitted that the Sinovac vaccine only has a 50.4% efficacy rate against COVID-19 infections. Though interim data from Indonesia showed the Chinese serum to be 65% effective against the dreaded disease, this is still significantly lower than the 95% efficacy rate of both Pfizer and Moderna. This prompted some senators to question the government's deal with Sinovac and urge for its immediate cancellation. 

But Duterte quickly came to Sinovac’s defense, stating that, “Hindi nagkulang ang Chinese. Hindi sila nagkulang sa utak. Bright itong mga Instik at they would not venture kung hindi sapat, it is not safe, sure, and secure.” (The Chinese did not fail in producing the vaccine. They are not stupid. The Chinese are bright, and they will not venture into vaccine production if they know those will not be safe, sure, and secure.)

Galvez, unsurprisingly, followed the President’s lead, insisting that, “Kaya po namin pinili ang Sinovac, dahil medyo mura po ito.” (We chose Sinovac because it’s slightly more affordable.) 

But data from the Department of Health show the complete falsity of Galvez’s claim, since the vaccine with the lowest cost is not from Sinovac but from Novavax of India which is priced at Php366 per two doses. And while Sinovac’s price tag of Php3,629.50 is slightly lower than the Moderna vaccine which ranges from Php3904 to Php4,504, it still more expensive than Pfizer’s which is pegged at Php2,379. Admittedly, Pfizer and Moderna’s logistical requirements of ultra-cold supply chain would be a challenge for the Philippine’s tropical climate, but AstroZeneca’s may be easier to comply with.

Another cause for concern is Sinovac’s questionable reputation, since it was previously involved in several bribery scandals in the past. In 2017, for instance, the deputy director of China’s Food and Drug Administration, Yin Hongzhang, was given a 10-year prison sentence after receiving $83,000 in bribes from Sinovac’s founder and CEO, Yin Weidong, to facilitate the approval of the company’s SARS and avian flu vaccines. 

Because of Malacañang’s inability to address the doubts regarding Sinovac, several local governments have decided to acquire vaccines on their own. To date, over 30 provinces and cities have already set aside funds to buy vaccines from AstraZeneca, which cost Php610 per two doses.

But while these initiatives are truly commendable, it also raises several disturbing questions: How about those low-income municipalities that are unable to buy their own vaccines? And what will happen to indigent families and medical frontliners? Can the national government simply deprive them of any option apart from more expensive yet less effective vaccine that they are offering?

Citizen Action

In times of crisis, citizens are even more entitled to access to quality services from the government, since these services make the difference between life and death. Ensuring equitable access to quality vaccine is exceedingly important because COVID-19 will not be defeated if only a small portion of the population is inoculated. In a recent study by a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and The Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, it was established that a herd immunity threshold of 60% to 80% is needed to decisively overcome the virus. However, the minimum threshold for herd immunity remains a big debate, with 60-80% being on the low side of what are being proposed, especially in consideration of the rapid spread of new, more contagious variants.

Unfortunately, the current government’s attitude of forcing people to accept whatever vaccine it is offering is rooted to the country’s political culture of clientelism and bossism—a governance mindset wherein people are not treated as citizens, but as beggars who cannot be choosers when it comes to government services.

This is the system that citizen empowerment and accountability efforts are trying to change. People must have the power to demand quality services from their governments, and they must do so without any fear of reprisal. It begins educating citizens on what they should expect and demand from government—in this case, safe, quality and affordable vaccine.

At the same time, Filipinos must demand a thorough accounting of the COVID-19 funds. The Commission on Audit (COA) has announced it will be auditing the said funds, but it has yet to release its findings. Both chambers of Congress should also begin their inquiry, and ensure that their subsequent reports are understandable and accessible to the public. But all these can only be accomplished if there is a strong demand from ordinary citizens.

This coming February 14, Government Watch (G-Watch) will hold its 4th Ako Ikaw Tayo May Pananagutan with the theme ‘Love and Accountability in the Time of Pandemic.’ This simultaneous effort by all nine G-Watch sites shall serve as a collective platform to call for Safe and Quality Vaccine for All and Demand Accountability in the COVID-19 Funds. On this day, G-Watcher all over the country will conduct a wide variety of activities to advance our collective calls and to remind everyone of the importance of accountability, especially today when the country is still struggling against the pandemic.

Because the best way to love during the time of a pandemic is to hold power to account!