BY FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
The government’s decision to yet extend the lockdown in areas still grappling with a significant number of COVID-19 infections must be supported. There should be no debate about it in the face of hard data.
The controversial issue of funding, or supposed lack of it, seems to have been resolved for now. The country’s economic managers have given assurances that funds for the government’s COVID-19 response would be sufficient until the May 15 extension. What is uncertain is funding in the event of another prolonged extension. Government is also hard-pressed identifying fund sources for post-lockdown interventions, when the country and the economy adjust to the dictates of a “new normal.”
However, the speaker seems to be more concerned about his wards losing funding for their pet projects. According to media reports, some P31 billion in the 2020 budget allotted for infrastructure projects in congressional districts have been ordered diverted by the Executive to a cash aid program for local governments. This is allowed under the emergency powers law granted last month by Congress.
For the speaker and his wards, the question is whether the Executive has been “cancelling the right projects.” To underscore the extent of his concern and undisguised dismay at the prospect of losing fundings, the speaker wondered aloud if Congress did the right thing in passing the emergency powers law. It seems that the craving for power, privilege, and money is too great that it is impervious to the suffering of constituents.
While the House leadership has decided to use their taxpayer-paid time protecting their self-interests, ordinary citizens are bracing themselves for an extended period of uncertainty. Yes, we support the extension of the lockdown. But we do not support extending the indecisiveness and inefficiency that has characterized the lockdown’s implementation. Would it be too much to ask our officials to step up their game?
Take for example the P2 billion allotted for emergency cash aid for poor families. Its release has been hampered by bureaucratic inflexibility. Until now, many local governments are struggling to comply with the documentary requirements – euphemistically called “protocols” by senior officials – imposed on them by the Social Welfare Department. An appeal from the mayors of Metro Manila to simply use the list compiled by the local governments has been ignored. The Social Welfare and Interior Departments will continue to exercise “oversight” powers over the local executives.
Workers are no better off. They were promised cash aid of P5,000 by the government, but recently the Labor Department announced it would stop accepting applications. The P1.6-billion fund is nearly depleted, it said. Some P1.2 billion has already been disbursed but the applications continue to pile up. So far, it is not certain if new funds will be provided.
Movement restrictions are another reality of the lockdown that everyone needs to endure. But some are enduring it better than others. The vast majority do not have the luxury of having groceries and medicines delivered to their homes. They have to endure crowded markets, long lines, scarce supplies, high prices, and the threat of contamination. The poor, on the other hand, subsist on relief goods from their local governments. These relief goods are either scarce or non-existent, depending on the level of funding or efficiency. In the slums, the overwhelming presence of police and military men in fatigue uniforms elicits fear and anxiety, rather than a sense of security.
The shooting last week of a former Army man by a police officer in Quezon City has sparked indignation over the overzealous and heavy-handed tactics employed by some policemen and other persons in authority enforcing the lockdown. The chief of the Philippine National Police again disappoints with a statement immediately exonerating the police officer. The officer acted in self-defense, he said. The PNP chief’s statement drew rebuke from lawyers and law professors who reminded him of the legal definition of self-defense, and jurisprudence on the matter.
Days after the shooting, a photo of a man about to leave his house to buy groceries went viral. What caught the attention and sympathy of netizens were the words on his white t-shirt handwritten with a marker. It read: “Going out to buy groceries… I have two children … Please don’t shoot me.”
Will this be part of the “new normal” that government officials are preparing for? A climate of anxiety where the citizenry fear for their lives? We pray such will not come to pass.