By Alahna Sam Sy and Janelle Marahay
Ever since we found ourselves in the midst of this pandemic, there have been things that we saw coming and those that had us going, “Wait, whaaat?”
For most Filipinos, the Bayanihan Heal as One Act was the latter.
On March 25, just a few minutes after midnight, the President signed into law the Bayanihan Heal as One Act (RA 11469) during a special session. Before this happened though, an initial draft was leaked and had drawn controversy and criticism because it would’ve given Duterte “emergency powers” — which was deemed unnecessary and unconstitutional.
Because of the online clamor that ensued, the bill was revised to what it is now. Which brings us to the next part: what is it really?
Essentially, the Bayanihan Heal as One Act grants Duterte special powers to adopt and implement different temporary emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis in the country.
Wait, what special powers?
These special powers mean extra capacity for the President to enact particular orders that otherwise can’t be implemented. All in all, the bill states 30 special powers to combat the COVID-19 crisis.
You can read the full text here, but here are the key points for your convenience:
Procurement of goods
The President has the power to expedite and streamline the procurement of goods and other necessary medical materials such as medical equipment, suppliers, tools and consumables, as well as medicines and testing kits. The Act mandates that the availability of these are ensured and that delay in procurement should be avoided.
Provide subsidies to low income families
An emergency subsidy will be allocated to 18 million low income households for two months, ranging from P5,000 to P8,000. The Act also mandates the formulation and implementation of programs that would help affected citizens in the labor force, financial assistance for rice farmers, school-based feeding programs, and a livelihood program.
Direct PhilHealth to cover the medical expenses of health workers
In case of COVID-19 exposure or any work-related injury or disease, PhilHealth will cover the expenses of health workers. This is on top of the hazard pay granted by the Magna Carta of Public Health Workers.
A P100,000 compensation package will also be given to public and private health workers who will contract severe COVID-19 infection while in the line of duty, or P1,000,000 to those who may die.
In addition to these, the President can also oversee local government units, take over private operations like hospitals and transportation, regulate public and private traffic and resources like energy and water, and mandate the Department of Health to allocate and distribute resources such as PPEs, medical supplies, and testing kits. These measures are allegedly meant to protect people from hoarding and profiteering.
Sounds good! Why all the fuss?
Here are some arguments that have surfaced regarding the Bayanihan Heal as One Act:
Experts argue that these special powers are unnecessary because Duterte’s executive powers as the President are enough.
In fact, the Act drew flak even from Senators. Sen. Risa Hontiveros stated that existing laws already grant government the powers and other necessary tools for an effective COVID-19 response, citing Republic Act No. 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act, and RA 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act. She added that the passage of a supplemental budget could have been opted for instead.
It’s partly unconstitutional.
In the Act, the president is given the power to cancel projects and activities under the executive department and government-owned or controlled corporations (GOCCs), and transfer the allocated funds for said projects into “savings” for COVID-19 response measures and operations.
However, under our Constitution, the President is not allowed to create savings from appropriations, but only to use actual savings, or those funds earned from the excess of allocations for finished projects.
With the provision in Section 4 (v) of the Act that allows him to generate savings instead of using accumulated ones, the President is assuming a power that is delegated by the Constitution to the legislative branch of government, not the executive. There is no basis for this power under our laws.
It’s prone to abuse.
With the extended power of the President over the budget, fears of possible corruption have been expressed, with calls for accountability of the P275 billion budget trending in social media.
With the government’s track record, it’s only fair that we become more vigilant on how they’re handling this crisis.
Here are some questions worth asking: With this power of discretion over the executive budget, what are the measures and standards that must be followed in terms of accountability? How do we ensure the principle of checks and balances? How will the disclosure of these expenses to the public be ensured?
It threatens freedom of speech.
Concerns are growing by the minute over Section 6 (f) of the act. This provision penalizes “Individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms,” which according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines violates freedom of expression, adding, “In times of crisis, when the swift delivery of accurate information to our people is vital, we need more, not less, independent reporting.”
Any information that’s been found to be false, having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and is clearly geared to promote chaos, panic anarchy, fear, or confusion will be penalized. And the penalty? Two months imprisonment and a fine of P10,000 to P1,000,000.
When it comes to penal laws, there are clear elements that must be present in order to hold a person liable. While the executive department has yet to issue the implementing rules for this provision, there are no clear standards set to determine what statements constitute those that fall under this provision. Hence, it remains subjective, and may be abused.
This clause seems to have already taken effect, because on March 28, a teacher and her son in General Santos were arrested without a warrant over a Facebook post. The woman is now facing charges of Inciting to Sedition. She called for people to raid the gym where relief goods were kept by the LGU.
Are there penalties?
Yes. The act goes beyond giving powers to the President, it is also a penal law which punishes the following acts:
LGU officials disobeying national government quarantine policies, owners of privately owned facilities and vessels who refuse to operate pursuant to the directive of the president, those in restraint of trade including hoarding and profiteering, refusal to prioritize and accept contracts for materials and services necessary, refusal to provide thirty day grace periods for residential rents falling due within the quarantine period, spreading of false information in social media and other platforms to promote chaos, panic, anarchy,fear or confusion, failure to comply with limitations on operation of transportation sectors, and impeding access to roads, streets and bridges.
As of writing, the implementing rules for the act have yet to include the imposition and implementation of these penal provisions.
Okay, he has his powers. What now?
Well, nothing seems to be happening.
During his public address yesterday, he didn’t mention any concrete plan on how the Bayanihan Heal as One Act will be implemented or how the funds will be utilized. Because of this, and the almost 7-hour delay of his broadcast, their crisis management and lacking sense of urgency were again criticized by people on social media.
According to Section 5 of the Act, Duterte is supposed to submit a weekly report to Congress. This report should include information regarding how the funds were used, augmented, reprogrammed, reallocated, and realiagned.
But since its effectivity after publication on March 25, 2020, they haven’t released anything about the concrete implementation of the Act. To note, the provisions of the act are not self-executory and require the directive from the President, hence the issuance of the Memorandum from the Executive Secretary on March 28.
The memorandum was addressed to the heads of government agencies and instrumentalities including GOCC’s and LGU’s for the implementation of temporary emergency measures under RA 11469. Heads were basically ordered to allocate funds and implement the provisions of the Act.
As of writing, the acts under Section 6 have not yet been issued the respective Implementing Rules and Regulations.