There is still no respite for the nation as COVID-19 cases surged past the 40,000 mark last July 3, Friday, with what was then the highest daily increase at 1,531 new cases recorded. On the same day, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the contentious Anti-Terrorism Bill into law, raising concerns over the preservation of civil liberties.
This series of events again intensified public criticism against the Philippine government’s actions amid shortfalls in its pandemic response.
Anti-Terrorism Bill signed
Almost one month after it was passed in Congress, the Anti-Terrorism Bill is now the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 after receiving Duterte’s signature.
The controversial law seeks to amend the Human Security Act of 2007, which Anti-Terrorism Bill principal author Sen. Panfilo Lacson described as a “dead letter law”—practically useless for counter-terrorism. The move sparked serious criticism from civil organizations. Vice President Leni Robredo declared that while terrorism remains a serious concern, the “timing” of the law’s passing was dubious given the ongoing health crisis.
Former Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio noted that the law may be used to target citizens’ freedom of speech. This, however, opened the law for legal contention, he explained.
A day after the law was signed, a group composed of lawyers led by Atty. Howard Calleja, the De La Salle Brothers led by Br. Armin Luistro FSC, and other civic leaders electronically filed a petition before the Supreme Court (SC), urging a temporary restraining order against the new law, which is set to take effect on July 18.
During his national address last Tuesday, June 30, Duterte announced the new quarantine measures to be imposed on different areas of the country until July 15. The current General Community Quarantine (GCQ) over Metro Manila was extended until July 15, while Cebu City, which surpassed 5,000 COVID-19 cases on June 29, will remain under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).
As of Sunday, July 5, the Department of Health (DOH) revealed that the countrywide total of COVID-19 cases has spiked to 44,254—the second-highest case tally among Southeast Asian countries, with 1,147 fresh cases and 1,287 late cases for a record-high of 2,434 new cases reported. The nation also has 11,942 recoveries, the lowest recovery rate among Southeast Asian economies at 27 percent.
Despite such grim developments, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had expressed confidence last July 3 that the country’s previous lockdown measures—the National Action Plan Against COVID-19—produced “good results”. Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque received backlash after cheering for the June 30 COVID-19 tally—36,438 cases at that time—because it was below the University of the Philippines’ projection of 40,000 cases by the end of June. This predicted amount, however, was surpassed less than a week into July.
Despite the worrying increases in the number of cases, DOH Officer in Charge-Undersecretary Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire confided that a shortage of laboratory equipment like micropipettes and extraction kits still hinders local testing centers from conducting more tests.
In theory, the country’s testing facilities have an estimated total capacity of 50,000 tests per day. But in reality, only 13,000 to 14,000 tests a day are performed, contrary to National Action Plan Against COVID-19 Deputy Chief Implementer Vince Dizon’s promise of 30,000 tests daily by the end of May.
Nevertheless, testing has improved considerably since May, where it averaged around 9,000 per day. According to Vergeire, manpower, which had previously been one of the hindrances, is no longer a chief concern.
ABS-CBN grilled over tax offense allegations
On July 13, the SC is set to deliberate on ABS-CBN’s plea to nullify the cease and desist order issued by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).
During a hearing in the House of Representatives last Thursday, July 2, the media giant was accused of tax avoidance by Rep. Eric Yap. “They were involved in a tax avoidance scheme by means of distribution companies in Luxembourg, Hungary, and the Cayman Islands,” the lawmaker alleged. Tax avoidance, however, is not illegal under the country’s tax code, in contrast to tax evasion.
Despite the allegations, Bureau of Internal Revenue Assistant Commissioner Manuel Mapoy stated a day earlier that ABS-CBN paid its taxes regularly, adding that the broadcasting company did not have an outstanding delinquent account.
The media giant revealed that it was losing more than P30-million daily in advertising revenues after having been off the air for two months. Their position was further worsened when the NTC also ordered ABS-CBN subsidiary Sky Cable Corporation to halt its Sky Direct broadcast service on the basis that its legislative franchise ended last May 4. More than 1.5 million subscribers have lost access since June 30.
In the following weeks, hotel and restaurant capacity for areas under GCQ will be gradually increased. Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez hopes these can reinvigorate the country’s tourism department.
Churches will be included in the capacity increase—with “religious gatherings now allowed…at 10 percent capacity,” according to Roque—after being allowed a maximum number of 10 participants previously under GCQ.
Under modified GCQ, however, churchgoers are allowed at 50 percent capacity.
Ride with caution
Metro Manila residents also saw the return of Public Utility Jeepneys (PUJ) with 50 percent operating capacity last July 3. This comes after an announcement made by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) allowed “roadworthy” jeepneys to operate along designated travel routes.
The board claimed that the policy would allow 6,000 jeepney drivers to resume their work. The LTFRB also promised to increase the number of units should demand call for it. Minimum fare remains the same in Metro Manila: P9 for the first four kilometers, and an additional P1.50 per succeeding kilometer.
To comply with physical distancing guidelines, public transport drivers are expected to use alternative fare collection systems, such as drop boxes. A plastic barrier separating the driver from their passengers is also required, and PUJs need to be disinfected at the end of every trip.