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Anti-COVID bills, vaccine budget

Definitely, the 18th Congress will face and confront the continuing rise and impact of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. National survival is at stake as we await with guarded optimism the early results of the global race to develop the vaccine against the COVID-19 contagion.

Administration allies or not, both chambers of the 18th Congress have to deal with these anti-COVID-19 measures under the direction and leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte. President Duterte strongly believes only the discovery of vaccine could free us from lockdowns for almost five months now in trying to prevent the spread of this unseen but deadly flu-like disease.

In fact, President Duterte is going to spell out his administration’s anti-COVID measures as the priority legislative agenda when he delivers his traditional state of the nation address (SONA) this afternoon at the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City. Today is the start of the second regular sessions of the Senate and the House of Representatives under the so-called “new normal” ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As earlier announced by Malacañang, the 75-year-old President will be physically present at the Batasan for his penultimate SONA. He will be joined only by a limited, select number of Senators, House members, Cabinet officials and guests to strictly conform with the social distancing and other anti-COVID protocols. Likewise, Malacañang announced the Chief Executive, along with the rest of SONA attendees inside the halls of the Batasan will all go through the required swabbing test for any COVID-19 infection on the eve of SONA day.

The rest of the entire 18th Congress would have to watch the SONA to be aired live on television networks led by the government-owned PTV-4. Or opt to watch SONA through online livestreaming via Facebook, Zoom Webinar and other internet/broadband which have become crucial as COVID-adaptation platforms.

The first order of the day for the Senate and the House as they go back to sessions today is to approve their respective “Bayanihan-2: We Recover As One” versions. This bill seeks to extend the Bayanihan-1: We Heal As One Act that lapsed already last June 25. The Bayanihan-2 seeks to, among others, grant continuing special emergency powers to the President in re-aligning the Congress-approved 2020 budget. This is to enable the government to address the prevailing public health crisis due to the COVID pandemic.

During our Webinar Kapihan sa Manila Bay last July 8, Senate president Vicente Sotto III announced they will call their House counterparts to convene the bicameral conference committee as soon as they approve the Bayanihan-2. This will pave the way for the immediate consolidation of the differing versions of the Senate and House bills on the proposed P140-billion Bayanihan-2. Thus, Sotto cited, there won’t be any need for the President to certify this as urgent administration bill.

For their part, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda proposed to his colleagues at the Lower House to just adopt the Senate Bayanihan-2 version that the Department of Finance (DOF) supports.Salceda disclosed his proposal in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Webinar last Wednesday when he revealed epidemiological forecast that the COVID-19 cases in Philippines could go as high as 500,000 to 1.2 million by year end. That is, he warned, if the government will not ramp up its COVID testing, isolation and treatment measures while there is no vaccine yet.

Aside from the Bayanihan-2 bill, Salceda enumerated the other economic stimulus bills in their order of legislative priorities as follow: the proposed Acceleration, Recovery and Investment Stimulus of the Economy Act (ARISE), and, the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE); and, the proposed COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus (CURES) bill that seeks to include its funding in the allocations of P140-billion Bayanihan-2.

As the chairman of House committee on ways and means, Salceda noted they have already finished the other DOF-endorsed economic stimulus bills that are all pending at the Senate for their approval. Also stuck in the Senate legislative pipelines, he rued, were the House-approved bills on Financial Institutional Strategic Transfer Act (FIST); Government Financial Institutions Unified Initiatives to Distressed Enterprises for Economic Recovery (GUIDE); the Public Services Act; Retail Liberalization Act; Foreign Investments Act; National Valuation Services Act; and, the Passive Income and Financial Intermediary Taxation Act (PIFITA).

“All these proposals and priorities of Congress and discussions will definitely focus on COVID-19,” Salceda declared. “If only the Senate acts, we can have five or six home runs because the bases are loaded,” Salceda quipped.

The biggest economic stimulus package though, Salceda cited, is the proposed P4.3-trillion budget under the 2021 General Appropriations Act (GAA) bill. The Executive Branch is mandated by our country’s 1987 Constitution to submit the GAA bill to Congress within one month from opening of sessions.

From the pandemic lessons learned, Salceda underscored the need to set aside at least P100 billion for the initial procurement of anti-COVID vaccine. He suggested this minimum amount can be put in the unprogrammed appropriations of 2021 GAA bill. So that once the anti-COVID-19 vaccine becomes commercially available, money is ready and available, he explained.

“I think we should put our minds to it. We must have a vaccine policy now,” Salceda stressed.

By rough cost estimates of $2,300 remdesivir (a cure for ebola but could treat COVID-19 infection) for 109 million Filipinos as example, Salceda calculated as much as P12 trillion is needed, or triple the budget for next year. Unlike the economic stimulus bills, the COVID-19 vaccine is not in the 2021 GAA bill yet, he pointed out.

At initial stages, he warned, the vaccine won’t be cheap. So who gets to be immunized first? For the rich Filipinos, it’s not a problem. But for the rest of us, we all have to wait for the 2021 vaccine budget.

Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com

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