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The Rundown: New COVID-19 hotspots, ASEAN Summit, Pride March suppressed, economy still gloomy

As June comes to an end, the country’s COVID-19 case count continues to rise sharply, maintaining worries on the state of national preparedness. Cases of the disease surged past 31,000 last June 23—100 days since the start of quarantine measures. The number continues to rise alarmingly close to the 40,000 end-of-the-month total projected by experts from the University of the Philippines. 

In the same week, against the backdrop of continued crackdowns on civil rights and frantic efforts to save the Philippine economy, President Rodrigo Duterte met with leaders of neighboring countries in the 36th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit to join the discussion on various regional COVID-19 responses.

Hotspot and outbreaks

As the country braces for new quarantine guidelines starting Wednesday, July 1, the Department of Health (DOH) reported last Saturday, June 27, that the nationwide total of COVID-19 cases rose to 34,803. This comes after Health OIC-Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire announced on June 23, Tuesday, a record-breaking 1,150 single-day increase, which she later said consisted mostly of mild cases.

Nevertheless, Vergeire urged public vigilance, “We can’t be complacent here.”

Meanwhile, last June 24, the DOH identified Cebu City, Cebu Province, Ormoc City, Southern Leyte, Leyte, and Samar as emerging COVID-19 hotspots. During his address last Monday, June 22, Duterte tasked Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to supervise COVID-19 response efforts in Cebu City. Duterte also faulted Cebuanos for supposedly lacking discipline in following quarantine measures.

“I’ll tell you (Cebuanos) frankly, you are hard-headed…Everyone’s already in their homes but you are all still outside,” Duterte said in Cebuano.

Regional agenda

The ASEAN convened its member states through an online summit themed Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN, last Friday, June 26. The regional discussion tackled post-pandemic recovery plans, ASEAN’s COVID-19 response fund, and continuing disputes concerning the West Philippine Sea. 

Duterte, in his summit address, stressed that the regional bloc must “maximize trade facilitation initiatives” to promote the growth of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and build resilient and sustainable supply chains to minimize the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund previously projected the country’s Gross Domestic Product to shrink by 3.6 percent for 2020. 

Facing criticism for his soft stance against China, Duterte reasserted that the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea must serve as the basis of sovereign rights in the region’s disputed waters. However, the President reiterated that the Philippines should continue “to nimbly engage” with China to reap possible benefits. 

Arrest of ‘Pride 20’ protesters 

With over 2,000 Filipinos already in jail from daily arrests since the start of quarantine measures, 20 more were added to the growing list last June 26.

Members of Bahaghari and other progressive groups were arrested for alleged violations of Republic Act (RA) 11332, or the Law on Reporting of Communicable Diseases, and Batas Pambansa 880, better known as the Public Assembly Act, after staging a peaceful protest in Mendiola, Manila in celebration of Pride month.  Authorities cited failure to observe physical distancing protocols and to secure a permit to protest as grounds for the arrest, while the apprehended groups reiterated that distancing and other health measures had been followed.

“#FreePride20” quickly circulated on social media as online users called for the immediate release of the protesters. Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay revealed that the protesters were “not informed of the charges when they were accosted.”

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has mobilized a quick response team to investigate the incident. In a statement, the commission declared that they would continue to vigilantly protect and uphold the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, especially during a time of great unrest in the country. 

This is not the first time that police have arrested protesters during the community quarantine. Eight individuals were also arrested last June 5 in Cebu City in protests against the Anti-Terrorism Bill.

Continued economic woes

As the economic slump due to the pandemic sweeps across the nation, an increasing number of Filipinos have been left unemployed as businesses are forced to close or downsize. Based on the Department of Labor and Employment’s latest Job Displacement Monitoring Report, 91 percent or 2,895 business establishments have reduced their workforce, while nine percent opted for permanent closure. 

Senate labor committee chair Sen. Joel Villanueva also confirmed that the country is projected to lose up to P6-billion in remittances this year as 400,000 overseas Filipino workers may be rendered jobless. 

Meanwhile, to keep the local economy afloat, the Philippine banking system has continued to extend support to MSMEs. Last June 25, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) announced a new 50-basis-point-cut on the overnight repurchase facility to dramatically reduce interest rates on overnight lending and deposit. This, according to BSP Governor Benjamin Diokno, would encourage more financial lending and boost domestic economic activity. 

Anti-Terrorism Bill under review

Almost a month since the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 in Congress, President Duterte is still yet to sign the measure into law, which has been criticized for its “vague” definition of terrorism and loosened checks on authority.

In his public address aired last Monday, June 22, Duterte only confirmed that his legal team is still “reviewing” the measure. He has until July 9 to sign or veto the bill, after which the bill would automatically lapse into law without the President’s signature. 

Bayanihan Law expires

RA 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, which granted Duterte emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, expired last Thursday, June 25, after its designated replacement, dubbed the Bayanihan to Recover as One Bill, was tabled on its second reading in the Senate. Duterte has not certified the bill as urgent.

Despite this, Social Welfare Undersecretary Danilo Pamonag assured that cash aid distribution would continue for 18 million poor and vulnerable families under the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP), which was part of the Bayanihan Law.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano urgently stressed that the second Bayanihan Act needs to be passed under House Bill 6593. “We are expecting to have a special session soon,” he shared, adding that it may be conducted in the coming weeks “depending on the schedule [of Malacañang] Palace”. 

Amended quarantine recommendations

The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases has further eased restrictions in areas under general community quarantine (GCQ) despite the continuous rise of COVID-19 cases. 

The group had confirmed on Friday, June 26, that a maximum of 10 people can now visit memorial parks and cemeteries in GCQ areas. Meanwhile, restaurants in areas under GCQ can now operate at 30 percent capacity up to 9 pm in the evening. UV Express services and jeepneys will also be back on the road by Monday, June 29, according to the Department of Transportation.

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