President Duterte will address the nation Monday in an attempt to keep the Filipinos’ hopes alive in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds amid the coronavirus pandemic and move the nation forward during these times of struggle and uncertainty.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the President will deliver his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) live, “as planned,” and not virtually, at the Batasang Pambansa.
Barring last-minute changes, the President’s annual address will be delivered before a limited number of lawmakers and Cabinet members at the Batasan Pambansa in Quezon City under heavy health and security protocols.
The alternative plan is to move the venue to Malacañang if the SONA guests at Batasan test positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said everything is set for today’s SONA and Congress is ready to welcome the President at the House of Representatives. Fifteen Cabinet secretaries will be allowed at the Batasang Pambansa on Monday as well as 50 lawmakers and they will have to undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, including the President.
According to Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, the President offers “strong leadership and decisive action” to steer the country in overcoming the crisis as the nation longs for a sense of safety and normalcy.
His blueprint for the country’s sustained pandemic response as well as economic recovery will be among the highlights of the SONA. Balancing government efforts to save lives and protect livelihoods will also likely be part of the President’s SONA, according to Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. Andanar said the President may deliver the SONA in Malacañang if a significant number of Batasan guests will test positive for COVID-19.
“Kung mayroong magpositibo, malaki ang pagkakataon na ito ay ilipat na lamang sa Option B – diyan na lang sa Rizal Hall (If the tests turn out positive, there is a big chance that it will be moved to Rizal Hall under Option B),” he said. He added that the President has practiced the delivery of the SONA and has edited and cut some portions of the speech.
The President is expected to make a final rehearsal Sunday night.
Strong leadership, decisive action
“Times of crisis require strong leadership and decisive action,” Panelo told the Manila Bulletin.
“Accordingly, we are blessed that we have President Rodrigo Roa Duterte at the helm of the government. No other person has a powerful commitment to public service and a genuine desire to help the Filipino people who are deeply ingrained in his heart as the President,” he said.
The President recognizes that the coronavirus has had a profound and overwhelming impact on the people, from the tragic loss of lives to the loss of livelihood.
“There will never be enough words of consolation during this time of crisis. In the alternative, what we offer our people is hope – a hope for a brighter day,” he said.
Beyond any doubt, the country would not have been able to face this crisis as well as it has without the political will of Duterte, according to Panelo.
From his usual battlecry to fight illegal drugs, crime, and corruption, the President has shifted his focus to leading the country out of the worst effects of the pandemic. His energy, including his anger and at times humor, has been directed at containing the unprecedented public health emergency.
The Duterte administration, however, has recently been under fire for allegedly mishandling the pandemic response. Many have criticized that the government’s efforts to protect public health are perhaps too little, too late.
Despite months of strict lockdown to limit the spread of the disease, COVID-19 cases continued to soar amid the growing strain on the country’s healthcare system. “We are far too early in this fight to circumspect on what could have been done better. What we should focus on right now is ensuring the health and safety of one another,” Panelo said.
Even as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the country, the situation is not hopeless as far as the Palace is concerned. The country can weather the storm not only with Duterte’s political will, but more importantly, with the indomitable spirit of Filipinos, Panelo added.
“We are a resilient people. We thrive in the face of adversity. We rise in the face of hardship and challenges. Bayanihan. Pagmamalasakit. Pagtutulungan. These are words that are deeply rooted in our society. Thus, we call upon every Filipino to all rise and help one another and heal as one nation,” he said.
Ahead of the President’s unveiling of a roadmap to aid families and businesses to get back on their feet, he is optimistic about the chances of the nation’s recovery, Panelo said.
Filipinos are fortunate the President has built an economy with solid fundamentals, resilient against challenges by adopting a prudent fiscal management strategy.
The government is committed to provide all means necessary to assist Filipinos overcome this crisis, he said.
“In particular, we have already revived and will continue to accelerate the “Build, Build,Build” program, attract foreign investors through pushing for more businessfriendly incentives, and promote manufacturing of products which have strong and constant demand, among others, in our endeavor to create more jobs and sustain our growth following the easing of people’s mobility restrictions,” he said.
Panelo acknowledged that the pandemic will persist while a vaccine has not yet been discovered.
The government, however, is determined to sustain efforts, particularly improving health care capacity, to curb the spread of the disease in the country.
Apart from addressing worries arising from the pandemic, Panelo sought to allay fears on other issues such as the anti-terrorism law. He said Republic Act No. 11479, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, is directed to combat terrorists, and not to silence critics or detractors. He assured that the anti-terrorism law contains more than sufficient safeguards against violations of political and civil rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.
“The President himself will see to it that these safeguards are strictly observed and are not empty letters simply to appease liberal or radical advocates,” he said. On allegations that freedoms of expression and of the press are under attack under Duterte’s watch, Panelo said such contentions are in part a false narrative peddled by political or prejudiced personalities “who desire to paint this administration as an absolutist.”
Philippine democracy remains actually vibrant under the Duterte presidency, Panelo said.
“One can easily witness the government being mercilessly bombarded with harsh criticisms by members of the vocal minority or of the press for it has an uncompromising policy not to engage in any form of censorship, prior restraint, or subsequent punishment,” he said. He denied allegations that laws are allegedly being weaponized to clamp down on government critics.
“There is no such thing as weaponization of the law. There is only strict and impartial enforcement thereof to all, bar none, including those who have been used to be immune thereof in the past,” he said.
First COVID budget
Nograles said they will not be able to submit to Congress the proposed ₱4.3- trillion national budget for 2021 in time for the President’s SONA because it is still being ironed out. He said they will be able to submit the proposed national budget to Congress in August.
According to Nograles, the Executive Branch would like to take its time to make sure that everything in the proposed national budget will be able to address the needs of the country. “Gusto naming isagad talaga sa kung ano ang nakalagay sa ating Constitution na pinaka deadline (We really want to use all the time that the Constitution has given us),” he said.
Last month, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado described the proposed national budget as “labor-intensive” and that the programs are geared towards the priority of the national government which is battling COVID-19. COVID fight Panelo said the country has managed to stave off the “devastating” first phase of the coronavirus pandemic but must continue to work hard to limit the spread of the disease.
“With an understanding that the pandemic shall persist while a vaccine has not yet been discovered, we have been hard at work to capacitate our healthcare system to adequately adapt to the situation and to ensure the readiness of our citizens for the new normal,” he said.
The coronavirus cases in the country have soared to more than 78,000 as the government gradually relaxed lockdown restrictions to allow some businesses to reopen.
The coronavirus lockdown, which started back in mid-March, has weakened the local economy and left many people jobless as many companies were forced to scale down or close operations.
Malacañang had earlier admitted that the country cannot afford another restrictive lockdown, citing the need to balance public health and the economy.
The country’s new quarantine status will likely be known this week following President Duterte’s meeting with members of a government task force on the pandemic response.
The President has placed Metro Manila and several areas under General Community Quarantine (GCQ) until the end of the month to stem the spread of the coronavirus disease.
Except for Cebu City that is under Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) other parts of the county are under the most lenient Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ).
Mobile detention for ‘unruly’ protesters
The National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) has readied 14 mobile detention facilities in anticipation of any arrest of “unruly” protesters during the fifth SONA of President Duterte.
But NCRPO director Police Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas said arresting protesters will be their last resort, saying they will continue to negotiate with the rallyists for the peaceful conduct of their demonstrations.
“We will first deploy blocking forces in areas where the protest action is prohibited so that if there will be violators, they will be immediately accosted and asked to leave in a polite way. But if they insist and continue to violate that will result in commotion, then that is the time that we will make arrests,” said Sinas.
Those who will be arrested will be locked in mobile detentions that were lent by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology to the NCRPO.
Hundreds of protesters are expected to join the demonstrations to protest the alleged government’s sloppy handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to high infection rate not only in Metro Manila but also in the provinces when the government’s program of sending stranded commuters to their hometowns began.
Based on the NCRPO plan, Commonwealth Ave. in Quezon City is off-limits to protesters.
Instead, those who wish to hold protest actions are advised to go to the University of the Philippines Diliman campus, also in Quezon City More or less 7,500 policemen, soldiers, and traffic enforcers will be deployed Monday.
Sinas said that they remain on the alert against any possible threat. Part of the security measures, he said, is the deployment of 30 bomb-sniffing dogs.
He said basic protective gears will also be distributed to anti-riot cops to protect them from the coronavirus infection. (With a report from Aaron Recuenco)