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The Rundown: Pemberton pardoned, Manila Bay project criticized, physical distancing reduced

Outcry erupted last week as President Rodrigo Duterte granted absolute pardon to United States (US) Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was convicted for the killing of Filipino transwoman Jennifer Laude in 2014. 

Government officials and civic society groups also questioned the effectiveness of a P389-million “beach nourishment” project for Manila Bay to fill the city’s shoreline with crushed dolomite. 

Meanwhile, concerns were raised over a Department of Transportation (DOT) order to decrease physical distancing guidelines in public transportation to accommodate more passengers.

Dolomite sands in Manila Bay

The beautification of Manila Bay was met with an outpouring of criticism last week after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) began to pile crushed dolomite along the shoreline.

The agency’s project did not sit well with environmental groups, who argued that dumping crushed dolomite could do more harm than good. In a Facebook post, environmental group Oceana Philippines explained that the introduced sand may disrupt the area’s ecosystem as sand does not naturally occur in Manila bay.

Former Manila mayor and current Buhay Party-List Rep. Lito Atienza lambasted the project as “worthless” last Sunday, September 13. Atienza, who had also served as former DENR Secretary, declared that the project is “bound to fail” as raw sewage from Metro Manila cities continued to pollute the bay area. The poured sand, he argued, is “just a storm surge away from getting washed out.” 

The Department of Health (DOH) also issued a statement on Monday, September 7, that inhaling crushed dolomite may cause respiratory problems; however, they clarified on September 9 that dolomite in its bulk state is not hazardous.

DENR also defended the project, claiming that the safety of the material was already proven through an unnamed third party last year. The agency added that they will be conducting their own analysis to quash further doubts against the project and that “occupational health and safety standards and precautionary measures for the containment of possible dust formation are being implemented.”

Meanwhile, Vice President Leni Robredo pointed out that the budget used for the project could have been allocated to more immediate pandemic response efforts. 

Pemberton returns to US

After almost six years in prison, Pemberton finally walked out of Camp Aguinaldo’s custodial center last Sunday, September 13, after being granted an absolute pardon by Duterte nearly a week before.

In his late night address last September 7, Duterte defended his pardon for Pemberton, saying that the convicted marine “was not treated fairly”. The Filipino soldiers guarding Pemberton, the President added, did not report misconduct during his detention, which would “allow him the good character presumption”.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who had previously served as the Laude family’s former lawyer, blasted Pemberton’s release order as “unjust” last September 2. He would backtrack on his stance days later and justified Duterte’s pardon order.

“There is no more issue if he is entitled to good conduct time allowance, or if the law is applicable to him since he was not imprisoned [in] the national penitentiary,” Roque said. 

Roque also hinted in a September 10 briefing that the pardon may have been a move to secure COVID-19 vaccines from the US. “Tingin ko naman, itong desisyon ng Presidente, ito ay personal na opinyon ko, ang pagbibigay ng pardon kay Pemberton ay kabahagi ng pagnanais ng Presidente na kapag meron nang vaccine na ma-develop kung sa America man, ay makikinabang din ang Pilipinas,” he said. 

(In my personal opinion, I think that the President’s decision to pardon Pemberton is part of his hope for the Philippines to benefit from America’s COVID-19 vaccine once they develop one). 

Pemberton has already arrived back in the US, where he is expected to face court martial proceedings for the killing.

Lawmakers, health workers hit low DOH budget

Lawmakers criticized the proposed P131-billion budget allotment for the DOH for 2021 amid ongoing budget hearings last Wednesday, September 9. Although higher than the P101-billion fund allotted for the department in the 2020 budget, it still paled in comparison to the P191-billion currently set aside for the Philippine National Police. Sen. Risa Hontiveros questioned the measly allocation. “Tinitipid po ba natin ang ating health sector sa tulong at suporta?” she asked.

(Are we skimping on assistance and support for the health sector?)

Sen. Franklin Drilon added that the small budget will dampen hopes of national recovery. “We need to improve our testing, contract tracing, and our ability to treat,” he said. “How can we achieve this if we reduced the budget of the DOH?”

Drilon and Hontiveros’ concerns were soon followed by a statement from the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) last Saturday, September 12, criticizing the government’s lack of priority toward the health sector. AHW President Robert Mendoza detailed that the government must allocate at least 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product—equivalent to almost P2-trillion—to public health services. 

“We are disappointed that the government did not even allot [a] budget for free, mandatory, and regular swab testing for all health workers; benefits like special risk allowance; COVID-19 hazard pay; free accommodation; and transportation for health workers,” he said. 

‘Staycation’ to be allowed in GCQ areas 

Hotels located in areas under a General Community Quarantine (GCQ) will soon be allowed to accept “staycation” guests aside from health workers, exempted employees, repatriated Filipino workers, and stranded tourists, according to Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat. 

The statement came after the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) approved last Thursday, September 10, the recommendation of the Department of Tourism (DOT) “to explore various ways [to restart] tourism activities during quarantine”. 

Puyat defined staycation as a “minimum overnight stay for leisure purposes in a DOT-accredited accommodation enterprise located in proximity [to] one’s residence.”

She announced that her department will issue guidelines on staycations under GCQ, with “specific regulations on all aspects involved in this activity, ranging from the maximum allowable number of persons in a guestroom to the use of ancillary services such as restaurants and recreational areas.” 

Physical distancing in transport hubs and PUVs relaxed

Last Monday, September 14, physical distancing measures in public transportation, including train, airliners, passenger ships, and public utility vehicles (PUVs), were eased to comply with a recent DOT directive. From one meter, the distance between passengers was reduced to 0.75 meters to increase capacity. It will be further reduced to 0.5 meters on September 28 and 0.3 meters on October 12. 

The measure was approved last September 12 by the National Task Force Against COVID-19 and the IATF in a virtual media briefing, stating that health standards should be “constantly updated” in continuous consultation with health experts on the succeeding steps the country should take in the fight against COVID-19. They had initially agreed to a 0.5-meter physical distance, but Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said that easing should be done gradually instead. 

Dr. Rontgene Solante, infectious disease director of San Lazaro Hospital, warned in a DZMM Teleradyo interview that one meter is the minimum distance proven to protect oneself against the virus. The medical expert emphasized that public transport vehicles are enclosed spaces that are prone to crowding. “You’ll have possible clustering of different exposed individuals that can somehow be in that particular area. That increases the risk of transmission,” he explained. 

By Eliza Santos

By Jemimah Tan

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