By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Health workers, not politicians, are the frontliners in the country’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III pointed this out as he defended the upper chamber’s decision to include in the proposed “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” provisions increasing the benefits for health workers who are treating COVID-19 patients.
The Senate adopted last Monday a proposal of Senator Richard Gordon to give a death benefit in the amount of P1 million to indemnify the immediate family of every public or private health worker who dies from the disease. A compensation benefit amounting to P100,000 each shall also be provided to health workers infected or injured while performing their duties related to the containment of COVID-19.
“Kawawa naman. Dapat talaga bigyan, di ba? Dapat bigyan kung nagkasakit ‘yung health workers. Sila yung frontliners, eh. Hindi naman mga pulitko ‘yung mga frontliners, eh. Ang frontliners ‘yung mga health workers,” Sotto said in a phone interview Tuesday.
(They are in a pitiful situation. Shouldn’t we give them that benefit? We should give health workers assistance if they get sick. Because they are the frontliners. Politicians are not the ones in the front line. The frontliners are our health workers.)
He said Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado were even “lauding the move”.
“Paanong mapipintasan ‘yon (How could that be criticized)?” Sotto said.
The Senate chief was responding to the comments made by Anak Kalusugan Rep. Mike Defensor, who criticized the Senate for supposedly delaying and watering down the powers to be given to President Duterte in addressing the COVID-19 health emergency.
He believed such move would “limit” the President’s discretion to carry out policies addressing the health crisis.
“Bakit pa tayo gumagawa ng bill ng emergency powers? Kasi nga may emergency! Kung ito naman eh hindi emergency, gagawa tayo ng bill ng PhilHealth, gagawa tayo ng GAA, gagawa tayo ng isang batas pambubuwis. Pwede tayo magdebate, pwede tayong mag-usap, pwede hindi maging kasing detalye tulad ng ginagawa nating batas ngayon,” Defensor said, expressing his view that the House bill was the “correct” version of the measure.
(“Why are we crafting an emergency powers bill? Because there is an emergency! If this is not an emergency situation then we would have crafted a bill about Philhealth, or a General Appropriations Act, or a tax law. We could debate, we could discuss, but we could also craft a law that is not too detailed like what we are doing now.”)
Sotto had repeatedly denied that lawmakers were planning to give President Duterte emergency powers to solve the COVID-19 pandemic. He earlier said that it was not what Congress leaders discussed with Cabinet officials in their meeting last weekend.
Congressmen might be “on the wrong track” for thinking that they would pass an “emergency powers” bill.
“It’s up to the people, kitang-kita ng mga kababayan natin kung anong kaisipan namin at anong kaisipan nila, pagka ganyan (“Our countrymen would see how we think in the Senate, in contrast to how they think in the House, if ever that’s the case”).
Congressmen and some Cabinet officials drew flak on social media Monday after posing with a makeshift poster urging the public to stay home since “we went to work for you”, mimicking a call made by health workers amid the increasing cases of COVID-19.
House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said they were simply echoing the health workers’ sentiments.
The “Bayanihan to Heal as One” bill seeks the grant of a special authority to President Duterte to realign government funds to immediately address the COVID-19 outbreak. It also aims to respond to the needs of Filipinos affected by the strict quarantine measures imposed in the whole of Luzon and in other parts of the country where the epidemic has spread.
Under the proposal, the special powers shall be effective for three months.
The House of Representatives adopted the Senate’s version early Tuesday, allowing Congress to skip the bicameral conference committee process and quickly enroll the bill for President Duterte’s approval.