Down the drain

Published September 1, 2021, 12:03 AM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay


Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

The Executive Department has transmitted to Congress the proposed budget for 2022 totalling P5.024-trillion. It has been billed as a “legacy” budget, which implies that the administration has accomplished the rather ambitious objectives it set out at the beginning of its term. The 2022 budget is being presented as a bequeathal to the next administration.

For some observers, this rather triumphalist declaration stretches credulity. It would be difficult to accept a declaration of “mission accomplished” when the pandemic has disrupted economic targets, and when the lives of millions of Filipinos have taken a turn for the worst. What the next administration will receive is a legacy of a broken economy and failed governance.

The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) admits that the economy may only return to pre-pandemic levels by late 2022 or early 2023. Our economic recovery is considered the slowest in the region, and experts assert that the prolonged lockdown, over 17 months and counting, has done great damage to the economy. It is a sentiment that has gained acceptance among leaders of the business community, and has prompted government officials managing the government’s pandemic response to rethink their strategy.

In a previous column, I expressed hope that the administration would finally come to realize the value of turning the 2022 budget into a real “pandemic response” budget by placing priority on programs that will decisively address a still-uncontrolled pandemic and its social and economic toll on ordinary Filipinos.

While acknowledged as a supposed pillar of the budget proposal, the executive is apparently proceeding from the same assumption that it used when it prepared the 2021 budget. At that time, senior government officials thought that the pandemic would be under control and the economy on the way to recovery by mid-year, if not earlier. That optimism was terribly misplaced.

And like the 2021 budget, the executive is again anchoring the economy’s recovery on infrastructure. The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will receive a budget of P686.1 billion for 2022, bigger than the allocation for the Department of Health (DOH), which received P242.0 billion.

Ideally, the DOH should get a bigger budget considering how our economic recovery would depend tremendously on competently addressing health-related issues such as vaccination, improving health services and facilities, and upgrading benefits for health workers. But any increase in the Health Department’s budget must go hand-in-hand with a change in the leadership in the Health Department.

So much has been written about the monumental failings of the current DOH Secretary, even before the start of the pandemic. And recently we have learned that billions in taxpayers’ money allotted for pandemic response have either been misspent or unspent by his agency. The details – and the personalities involved in these unpardonable acts – are still unravelling.

Giving more money to the DOH while the current Secretary remains in office would be like pouring money down the drain.

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