COVID-19 war chest pushed

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    AMIDST the ongoing political turmoil in the House of Representatives, with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano fighting off a perceived coup ahead of the scheduled turnover of the speakership to Rep. Lord Allan Velasco of Marinduque under the 15-20 agreement brokered by President Duterte himself, the nation somehow suffers with the impasse or the delay in the approval of the more than P2 billion supplementary budget that the Department of Health (DOH) badly needs in sustaining its surveillance, monitoring and forward planning to fight the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).

    House Committee on Health chairwoman Rep. Angelina “Helen” Tan of the 4th district of Quezon finds herself somewhat alone in pushing for the supplementary budget bill, which according to her totaled P2,040,000,000. This amount is what the DOH needs in setting up quarantine facilities, buying protective gear for health personnel, purchasing badly needed test kits for public hospitals, provision of additional beds for the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), everyday expenses of Filipinos repatriated from Japan and China, including its territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

    Rep. Tan, a physician herself, had to follow up the much-needed bill with ACT-CIS Party-list Rep. Eric Yap, the new chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, after he replaced Rep. Isidro Ungab of Davao City in that position. The congresswoman from Quezon acted swiftly in drafting her bill and filed it with the Ungab committee, and she waited more than three weeks but still it was not heard in a formal hearing, despite the obvious “emergency nature” of the measure. Now with the political pot boiling furiously in the House, and the change in leadership of the Committee on Appropriations from Ungab to Yap, the mild-mannered congresswoman-physician had to talk to Rep. Yap for faster action on her bill.

    Meanwhile, the COVID-19 continues its worldwide attacks on humanity, starting from its epicenter in Wuhan city, China. The latest figures show that 72 countries and three Chinese territories have confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections, and that 90,370 individuals had been infected, 3,114 have died, and 47,711 have recovered. The latest countries to host the virus are Mexico, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Jordan. The Philippines is lucky not to have local transmission of COVID-19, but Filipinos abroad had been hit, too.

    One problem the DOH faces in this regard – and it shares the challenge with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Labor and Employment – is the extensive presence of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) abroad. Rep. Tan noted that the DOH is therefore fighting the virus and maintaining surveillance and containment measures not just in the Philippines, but also abroad, particularly in countries where there are big concentrations of Filipino workers.

    Despite Rep. Tan’s fastidious diligence and painstaking work on the DOH supplementary, we wonder why the House leadership has been slow in acting on the bill, complacent maybe because COVID-19 has not really attacked the Philippines that strongly. The representatives are devoting their time in petty political quarrels and dilly-dallying tactics on the ABS-CBN franchise renewal, although both issues are not as threatening to Filipino lives as the 2019 coronavirus threat.

    Tan credits the Filipinos’ natural proclivity to personal hygiene and cleanliness as one of the reasons why the virus has little chance of multiplying in the country, but this should not encourage our lawmakers to let complacency set in.

    Providing additional funds for the DOH to fight this public health emergency is still a long process, with at least two House committees and the plenary still to act, and the relevant Senate panels and plenary, and the bicameral conference committee also to take up the bill. With the congressional Lenten break on the horizon, they may be running against the clock, Rep. Helen Tan correctly pointed out, and we agree.

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