POGO may yet defeat COVID-19

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    THE government, specifically the Department of Health (DOH), needs more than P2 billion to set up a working and reliable system to fight the onslaught of the Coronavirus Disease 2019. The disease, which first manifested its presence in Wuhan, China on the last days of 2019, has spread all over the world, with the World Health Organization calling it a pandemic on March 12.

    Quezon 4th district Rep. Angelina “Helen” Tan, chair of the House committee on health, early on filed a bill for the supplemental budget of the DOH, proposing the amount of P2,040,000,000. A physician, Rep. Tan understands the needs of the DOH in tackling this most serious public health emergency to visit the nation.

    Politically induced changes in House committee chairmanships, particularly the House appropriations committee, derailed the passage of Tan’s bill but before Congress adjourned for the forthcoming Lenten season, it was able to allocate P1.6 billion for the DOH.

    President Duterte was, of course, unhappy with this development, for the government cannot fully take on the virulent COVID-19 without the needed money and logistics. He turned to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) headed by chair Andrea Domingo for help. It was just providential that the head of Pagcor at this time is a professional manager who knows how to balance management needs and judicious spending, and ramp up the agency’s income by adhering to clean governance, COA directives, and fighting graft and corruption. With some savings from cost-cutting measures and correct management procedures, Domingo was able to promise the President that Pagcor can contribute at least P2 billion for the DOH supplemental budget.

    Now Health Secretary Francisco Duque III need not worry anymore on where to get the funds for the upgrading of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, for the purchase of face masks, testing kits, food and shelter for Filipinos undergoing mass quarantine, etc. What is not widely-known is that Domingo cannot provide the DOH with such a huge amount without the Philippine Overseas Gaming Operations (POGO). This year, despite the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 in the Philippines, Pagcor executives expect about P8 billion in revenues from POGOs.

    The festering problem, however, is that POGO has been at the receiving end of criticisms from senators, congressmen, leftist groups and the yellow group, along with those who see the negative in anything that President Duterte does.

    Domingo has been doing her part in explaining to the public and to the media the advantages to the government of a legalized POGO, when before or during the past administration offshore gambling was an illicit enterprise earning millions for certain politicians and businessmen. It is good, then, that the President himself was heard on the subject in a speech on Tuesday before the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) in Pasay City.

    “POGOs are clean… It’s a game for the other side. It gives us P2 billion a month. That is only the POGO. Pagcor is like P17 billion a year. Where do we get that?” the President said.

    Critics of POGOs are not expected to lower their guard or their voices soon, with Sen. Richard Gordon trying hard to trace a connection between online gaming operation and the illegal entry of millions of dollars and other currencies in the country. Others never get tired of linking POGO to kidnapping, physical violence, prostitution and cheating – which were clearly common crimes in the Philippines long before POGO came into the picture.

    President Duterte considers the current situation as a time of crisis, especially because COVID-19 has not shown any signs of being effectively contained in the Philippines, despite all the preparations, preventive measures and biosecurity moves implemented by the DOH. And because of this, who can blame Duterte if he turns to POGO as the cash cow that will provide the means for the country to defeat the deadly virus?