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The Rundown: PhilHealth probed for corruption, Anti-Terror Law petitions filed, high-profile inmate deaths questioned

It has been four months since the COVID-19 pandemic started showing alarming signs of spread in the Philippines. More than 80,448 cases have already been recorded by the Department of Health as of July 26, with 52,406 active cases and a death toll amounting to 1,932.

Despite the numbers, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque brushed off apprehensions in a media briefing last July 22, when total cases surpassed 70,000. He expressed, “I wouldn’t really say it’s something alarming, but it should concern all of us.” 

Abounding controversies

Controversies in governance continue to occupy the spotlight with recent corruption allegations surrounding PhilHealth, after its anti-fraud legal officer, Thorsson Montes Keith, resigned last Thursday, July 23. Keith professed “widespread corruption” and “rampant and patent unfairness in the promotion process” in the agency.

Roque announced later that day that an investigation case had already been opened, ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte himself, with Special Assistant to the President Jesus Quitain tasked to lead the probe. Meanwhile, Sen. Panfilo Lacson is set to file a resolution today, July 27, for the Senate to set up their own investigation on “almost P1-billion-worth of questionable transactions” made by PhilHealth and allegations of overpricing in the agency’s projects and procurement.

Resurrecting old records

Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director-General Gerald Bantag was put on the hot seat when he was criticized by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon last July 20 for refusing to confirm whether or not several high-profile New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmates died of COVID-19 complications—one of which was Jaybee Sebastian, a primary witness against Sen. Leila de Lima during the trial over her alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Bantag reasoned that the Data Privacy Act of 2012 prevented them from disclosing prisoner identities. Nevertheless, Drilion pointed out the possibility of abuse of the law in “one of the world’s most crowded correctional facilities”.

Following the accusation, the Department of Justice released a report confirming Sebastian’s death on the same day, while the death certificates of the eight other inmates remain under investigation. The case was further cast with a shadow of doubt when Bantag later confirmed that the prisoner bodies had been immediately cremated as part of COVID-19 protocols. 

Drilon claimed that these deaths could be used as a cover-up for extrajudicial killings of the prisoners, or an attempt to free the inmates by faking their deaths. Sen. Richard Gordon promised last July 22 that the Senate will likely investigate NBP within the next week.

Growing opposition

Petitions have racked up against the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, only one week after taking effect last July 18. On Thursday, July 23, prominent figures Sen. Francis Pangilinan, de Lima, Atty. Chel Diokno, and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa filed a petition against the controversial law’s implementation. Their appeal, represented by the Diokno’s Free Legal Assistance Group, decried the law as unconstitutional and a violation of citizen’s rights to freedom of expression and speech.

University Student Government President Lance Dela Cruz also filed a petition that same day, along with other student leaders from the University of the Philippines (UP), Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of Santo Tomas. Their group—represented by Atty. Dino De Leon and Atty. Norma Singson-De Leon—criticized the law for failing to properly define speeches that are deemed punishable.

Including an appeal filed by retired Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and fellow faculty members from the UP College of Law, the petition count against the ATA totals 19 as of Saturday, July 25. 

Nevertheless, Senate President Vicente Sotto III remained positive that the ATA will remain in effect, saying, “I know for a fact that there’s nothing unconstitutional in the law.” The ATA, he assured, is currently “flooded” with safeguards to keep it from being abused by officials, branding most of the concerns raised against the law as stemming from “misinformation” on the law’s provisions.

Recovering as one

Government officials are closing in on executing the succeeding phase of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. Having expired last Friday, July 24, its provisions are set to be extended in the form of the We Recover as One bill, with Sotto assuring that the Senate would most likely move to pass the bill when Congress resumes operations today, July 27.

In contrast to its predecessor bill, the proposed law no longer grants Duterte with the special power to take over hospitals and other private utilities. Additionally, it has omitted the provision allowing law enforcers to apprehend or penalize quarantine violators. Instead, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Chief Karl Chua described the bill as an “economic recovery program” for the country; unlike the original Bayanihan to Heal as One act, which purportedly focused on aid for medical frontliners, small businesses, and other marginalized sectors, the We Recover as One bill greatly expanded its scope with a P140-billion allocated for funding public transportation and government programs such as the Build, Build, Build initiative.

The bill, Chua said, will allow his office to review monthly data regarding the volume of production, inflation, and trade in the country, enabling them to adjust to the country’s economic trends. He hopes the monthly analysis will help push the country’s economic status in the right direction. “We will have to proactively shape the trajectory of our economy,” the NEDA chief prompted.

Far from home

Rizal Memorial Sports Complex has also become the temporary shelter for provincial residents stranded in the country’s capital. Although the government intended to bring the residents back to their provinces through the Hatid Tulong program, more than 8,000 locally stranded individuals (LSI) were instead crammed in the complex’s baseball, and track and field stadiums, consequently failing to practice physical distancing. 

Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo said that the “overflowing number of people” caused “the relevance of [physical] distancing [to be] diminished.” Prior to their residency in the complex and subsequent departure from Manila, LSIs had to undergo rapid testing. Eight individuals have so far tested positive, as Encabo announced earlier today, and are awaiting confirmatory results via RT-PCR testing.

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