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The Senate on Thursday ratified the Bayanihan to Recover as One (Bayanihan 2) bill, a measure that seeks to allow President Rodrigo Duterte to realign funds for the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) crisis.

This, after the congressional bicameral conference committee, approved the reconciled version of the Bayanihan 2 bill on Thursday after three days of marathon sessions. The House of Representatives is set to ratify the bill on Monday (Aug. 24).

The measure sets aside PHP140 billion for the coronavirus pandemic response with allotments for various government programs to help affected Filipinos and sectors, plus an additional PHP25.5-billion standby appropriations.

In his sponsorship speech, Senator Sonny Angara said the PHP140 billion of regular appropriations included PHP3 billion for the procurement of face masks, personal protective equipment and face shield; PHP4.5 billion for the construction of temporary medical isolation quarantine facilities, field hospitals, dormitories, expansion of government hospital capacity; and another PHP4.5 billion to the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) for isolation facilities and other requirements for the rent of various facilities, as well as food and transportation of Covid-19 patients while the government constructs more permanent facilities.

The measure also allocates PHP13.5 billion for the Department of Health (DOH) to employ emergency human resources for health; PHP820 million as a fund for overseas Filipinos under the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA); PHP13 billion for the government’s cash-for-work program and other support programs for impacted sectors.

Meanwhile, PHP600 million is allocated as subsidies and allowances for students severely impacted by the pandemic; PHP300 million as subsidies and allowance for teaching and non-teaching personnel and part-time faculty in state universities and colleges (SUCs); and PHP180 million as an allowance for national athletes and coaches, among others.

Angara said about PHP40 billion will be allocated to government banks as a capital infusion to aid businesses and entrepreneurs to weather the storm brought about by Covid-19.

The tourism sector, which is the most impacted sector by the pandemic, will receive PHP10 billion in allocations, to be divided into the following: PHP6 billion for soft loans for tourism micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) under the Department of Trade’s (DTI) Small Business Corp.; PHP3 billion to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) for assistance to displaced tourism workers; and PHP1 billion for tourism infrastructure under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

The agriculture sector will be allotted a PHP24-billion assistance under various programs under the Department of Agriculture (DA); while PHP9.5 million assistance will be given to the transportation industry under the Department of Transportation (DOTr).

For the education sector, PHP3 billion is allocated for the development of smart campuses across the country; PHP1 billion for scholarships under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA scholarships); and PHP4 billion will be allocated for the implementation of the Department of Education’s (DepEd) digital education adjusting to the new normal.

In the meantime, PHP6 billion will be given to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for assistance to individuals in crisis situations; PHP1.5 billion as assistance to local government units (LGUs); and PHP2 billion as interest subsidy for loans by LGUs from government financial institutions.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government would be given PHP5 billion to hire more contact tracers; PHP2.5 million for the computer-based licensure exams of the Philippine Red Cross; PHP10 million for the research fund of the Health and Technology Assessment Council (HTAC); and PHP15 million for the UP-Diliman computational research laboratory.

As for the PHP25.5 billion standby fund, Angara said that when the funds are generated, PHP10 billion will go to the DOH for testing and possible procurement of vaccine; and PHP15.5 billion will be allotted as an additional infusion to government banks.

On top of these appropriations are measures authorizing the President to exercise powers necessary to implementing a host of Covid-19 response and recovery interventions.

Angara said these includes, but not limited to: expediting the accreditation of virus testing kits that diagnose Covid-19; hiring of skilled medical technologists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, and other skilled laboratory technicians to conduct the Covid-19 testing; the provision of emergency subsidies to affected low-income households under specific quarantine conditions, as well as to households with recently-returned overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

It also provides for the liberalization of the grant of incentives in the manufacture or importation of critical equipment or essential goods, including PPEs, health care equipment and supplies; and the acceleration in the deployment of critical ICT infrastructure, particularly additional cell towers, equipment, software and wireless technologies to address the need for digital connectivity, internet speed and stability, among others.

Bayanihan 2 also provides for a 60-day grace period for the payment of all existing current and outstanding loans falling due on or before December 31, 2020. There is also a 30-day grace period on residential and commercial rents as well as the payment of utilities.

“The Covid-19 pandemic may have forced us to go into quarantine, but today we demonstrate how there is no locking down the Filipino spirit of bayanihan, especially during times of crisis and calamity… in the true spirit of bayanihan, nagkaisa po tayo (we united) to pass this measure in a relatively short amount of time despite the many issues involved,” Angara said.

Angara also thanked all his colleagues for fully supporting the measure.

“With the swift passage of Bayanihan 2, we hope to reinvigorate our people and renew their confidence in the future,” he said.

Duterte wants transparency

Meanwhile, Senate President Vicente Sotto III was quick to emphasize the importance of transparency in the implementation of Bayanihan 2, saying Duterte himself specifically instructed him Wednesday night on the need for transparency.

“The President of the Philippines sent a very important message that he wanted all these transactions be transparent and make sure that Congress is given a report on how this is going to be spent,” he told the plenary.

“The President also specified that the Commission on Audit (COA) should also be given a copy on how the Bayanihan 2 funding will be spent. It was a specific order by the President of the Philippines last night,” Sotto said.

Angara said that like the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Bayanihan also mandates the Executive branch to regularly submit reports to the Oversight Committee of Congress, and, in compliance with Duterte’s directives, also to the Commission on Audit (COA) for added transparency.

Senator Christopher “Bong” Go confirmed Sotto’s pronouncements.

“I would like to confirm, gusto ng Presidente na transparent ang executive and lahat ay accounted saan nagastos ang pera ng gobyerno (the President wants the Executive to be transparent and everything is accounted where government funds were spent,” he said.

He also thanked all members of the Bicameral Conference Committee for coming together in support of Bayanihan 2.

As chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Go commended the committee for providing benefits for healthcare workers, both public and private, who have contracted mild or severe Covid-19, or died due to Covid-19 while in the line of duty.

He also commended the Committee for heeding the President’s call, by providing additional benefits to public and private health care workers, like special risk allowance, life insurance, accommodation, transportation, and meals.

“This measure shall go a long way as we move forward on our road to our recovery as one,” Go said. (PNA)