Less punitive law
With Congress adjourning sine die this week, the Senate and the House of Representatives are expected to fast-track the passage of a bill seeking to give President Duterte additional special powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a big ask: The bill to extend up to September the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which expires on June 25, will give the President the power to realign more funds and a standby authority over an astounding P600-billion war chest to rescue vulnerable sectors, jumpstart the economy, and expand medical resources to curb the public health emergency.
Bills filed by Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri in the Senate, and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez in the House, specifically seek additional powers for the President to grant wage subsidies for a maximum of two months to displaced workers from battered industries, as well as to farmers and fisherfolk, freelancers, the self-employed, and repatriated overseas Filipino workers; provide education subsidies of P3,000 to P8,000 to students and P5,000 to P8,000 to teaching and nonteaching personnel in hard-hit private schools; impose longer payment moratorium on loans and utility bills; and address the need for reliable internet as the public shifts to work-from-home arrangements and distance learning for students.
Such big spending could be justified by the toll the lockdown has wrought on all sectors, especially the poor and vulnerable who were deprived of their daily wages and means of livelihood. But such big expense also requires serious oversight powers from Congress to ensure that every centavo of the P600 billion is spent as intended. Any new expenditures and disbursements should be an improvement on the previous COVID-19 aid program in terms of efficiency and transparency. In the original Bayanihan Act passed in March, the President was given authority to provide P200 billion cash aid to 18 million impoverished families; so far, the Department of Social Welfare and Development said it had distributed the first tranche of P100 billion, but complaints of having been left out are legion from citizens. Reports of corruption have also led to at least 100 barangay officials being placed under investigation.
Apart from insisting on transparency and accountability safeguards, lawmakers should seriously consider a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon to repeal provisions in the Bayanihan Act that penalize violations of quarantine rules.
Drilon said Section 6 of the law should be stricken out as it is being used by law enforcers to conduct warrantless arrests and abuse their powers, and that the violations enumerated in this section are already punishable under existing laws. “The purpose of the law is to protect the health of the people, not per se to punish a crime. We should not criminalize the Bayanihan to Heal as One Law,’’ he argued. “Quarantine violators are motivated and driven by reasons of hunger, by reasons of income, and not because they are criminals. They are violating the quarantine rules because they are looking for food, looking for jobs.’’
Indeed, regarded as one of the strictest lockdown regimes in the world, the Philippines’ quarantine rules have been disproportionately harsh on ordinary citizens, while being glaringly lenient on violators within the government, such as Sen. Koko Pimentel, OWWA official Mocha Uson, and Metro Manila police chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas.
This double standard in the application of the law leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. While administration insiders get away with their infractions, over 130,000 Filipinos have been arrested and/or fined for various quarantine violations since March 17, according to the Philippine National Police. The worst instances have been the killing of ex-soldier Winston Ragos in a checkpoint in Quezon City, and the widespread crackdown on social media posts critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
While officials have peddled the narrative that many Filipinos are “pasaway’’ (hardheaded) to justify a strong-arm approach to managing the pandemic, the latest Social Weather Stations survey belies that spin. Most Filipinos comply with home quarantine, social distancing, and other safety protocols, according to the survey; in fact, “as urged by the government, the great majority of Filipinos have hardly gone out,” wrote SWS president Mahar Mangahas in his column in this paper last Saturday.
As Congress grants more powers to the President, it should rework the law to make it compassionate and empathic, and less punitive toward already hard-up citizens. The people’s representatives need only listen to their constituents’ voices; it’s adding insult to injury to throw the book at them for the slightest perceived offense, and curtail their freedom, their rights, and their dignity.
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