The Rundown: Discontent over testing woes, blended learning, anti-terror bill

As concerns over the COVID-19 crisis’ adverse economic effects mount, the country is set to shift into eased quarantine measures by Monday, June 1. Nevertheless, the clamor for better leadership, greater transparency on pandemic-related budget utilization, and clearer policies still persists.

The LaSallian delves into what occurred in the country the past week, including new guidelines for the nationwide shift into General Community Quarantine (GCQ), delays in the release of financial aid for hospitals, and the government officials’ stances on school reopening. 

Alarming surge

Only three days before the scheduled shift into GCQ, the Department of Health (DOH) announced a record-high increase of 1,046 COVID-19 cases last Friday, May 29. This bumped the national tally of recorded cases from 15,588 to 16,634 in a single day. To alleviate public confusion, the DOH introduced a distinction concerning the timeliness of the reported cases: only 46 of the 1,046 considered as “fresh cases”—whose test results were released and validated in the last three days—while the remainder were “late cases”. 

According to Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, the troubling spike was due to backlogs now being addressed, with automation accelerating the encoding process. Before cases are added to official tallies, these have to be validated to ensure that the results are from unique individuals rather than repeat tests, and that the patients are informed first. Vergeire reported Thursday, May 28, that the backlog in validating cases has been reduced from 7,000 to 3,683 within the week. According to her, backlogs are due to the lack of manpower, limited supplies, and laboratories. 

The Office of the President gave the directive to reduce the backlogs in two to three days last Thursday. Moreover, the government plans to conduct 30,000 tests by May 31. 

GCQ pronouncements

In his speech last Thursday evening, May 28, President Rodrigo Duterte formally announced that Metro Manila—along with Cebu City, Mandaue City, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Pangasinan, Zamboanga City, and Albay—will transition to a more relaxed community quarantine starting June 1, approving the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force’s recommendation to consider the National Capital Region a “high-to-moderate-risk area”. Meanwhile, the rest of the Philippines will be put under a modified general community quarantine.

Residents living in GCQ areas will be allowed to go out, but excluding, in the interest of safety, those aged under 21 and aged 60 and above. 

As the workforce picks up, public transport is set to gradually resume operations through staggered phases. Trains, taxis, transport network vehicle services, and point-to-point buses will operate at limited capacity starting June 1, while public utility buses, UV Express, and modern jeepneys will be allowed to operate by June 22.

Duque asked to resign

The Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines (PHAPi) on May 25 called on the President to replace Secretary Francisco Duque III as health chief and chairman of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth). 

In a letter penned to Duterte, PHAPi President Rustico Jimenez said that their members “feel that they have [had] enough of the promises of PhilHealth and the Department of Health” regarding assistance supposedly extended to them during the pandemic.

Jimenez said PhilHealth gave them a “runaround” when asked about the interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM), which provides advance payouts of claims. “Although some have already received their share, most however are now so financially drained as they are still waiting for the promised IRM,” the letter read. 

He added that more than 300 private hospitals are on the verge of closing down because of delayed reimbursements from the government-owned corporation. Altogether, these gaffes do not inspire confidence in the health department’s programs to address the pandemic, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said. 

“Lives are at stake. The secretary has to shape up or ship out,” she said of Duque.

PhilHealth, meanwhile, countered Jimenez’s statement, calling it “unfounded, malicious, and irresponsible”. PhilHealth said that it had paid P52.53-billion in claims and the IRM, and are now exploring filing possible libel charges against Jimenez.

Returning home

In his televised public address late Monday night, May 25, Duterte warned local government units who refuse to allow overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to return to their respective provinces. He insisted that once the OFWs are cleared by medical authorities and given certification, they can return home. 

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año assured in their meeting that all 24,000 stranded OFWs have tested negative for the virus. 

Duterte emphasized that only the national government can impose travel restrictions during national emergencies. Although he recognized that local officials were only protecting their other constituents from possible infection, he said that it was “very cruel to deny them to go home”.  

No vaccine, no face-to-face classes

As the Department of Education (DepEd) prepares for the opening of primary and secondary schools on August 24, Duterte stressed that he would not allow physical classes to resume until a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed. 

“Unless I am sure that [the students] are really safe, it’s useless to be talking about the opening of classes. Para sa akin, bakuna muna. Kapag nandiyan na ‘yung bakuna, okay na,” he declared. “For this generation, [kahit] wala nang [makatapos] na doktor pati engineer.”

(A vaccine must come first. When a vaccine becomes available, I will allow the reopening of classes. It doesn’t matter if this generation cannot produce new doctors and engineers.)

Education Secretary Leonor Briones, however, clarified last May 28 that there is no conflict between the pronouncement of the President and her department. She assured Duterte, “We are one with you in your uncompromising stand on the matter of the health and the safety of our learners and our teachers.” 

Briones presented alternative learning arrangements she described as “blended and distant learning”. She noted that the existing learning modalities such as education through television and radio and online platforms “are not really new”. 

Duterte showed support for DepEd’s program, “If there’s anything that we can do…we will endeavor to help you.” The Presidential Communications Operations Office and the state-owned broadcast network IBC-13 have volunteered their facilities. Barangays and the local governments would also be kept in close contact as the department implements the system, according to Briones.

“We are now shifting to less physical, face-to-face classes, but education will continue,” she concluded.

Approved anti-terror bill

Members of the House Committees on Public Order and Safety and on National Defense and Security in a joint meeting last Friday, May 29, adopted the Senate’s version of a bill that will toughen the law against terrorism in the country. 

In February, the Senate approved Senate Bill No. 1083, which lengthens the allowable warrantless detention period for suspected terrorists from three days to 14 days, which is extendable by at most another 10 days. Furthermore, it permits the military and police to conduct surveillance operations for a maximum of 60 days and allow them to request telecommunication companies to disclose messages and calls made by suspected terrorists. 

Moreover, it exempts the police and military from liability under Article 125 of the Revised Penal Code that punishes law enforcement for delays in bringing detained persons to proper judicial authorities. 

Should the bill pass into law, it would repeal a provision in Republic Act (RA) 9372 or the Human Security Act of 2007 that awards wrongfully detained individuals P500,000 for each day of detention.

The bill had also expanded the definition of terrorism given in RA 9372 and included in its scope those who incite others to commit terrorist activity, even if they do not directly commit said activity. Punishments for suspected terrorists range from 12 years to lifetime imprisonment.

Filipinos took to online platforms with “#JunkTerrorismBill”, expressing concern on the swift passage of the bill amid the current crisis. Critics, such as Kabataan Partylist Rep. Sarah Elago, argued that the bill’s provisions could be weaponized to silence dissent.

By John Oliver Dysanco

By Jemimah Tan

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