Romualdez: House OKs 6 anti-COVID-19 measures

Martin Romualdez & Alan Peter Cayetano
Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee Co-Chairman and House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez (5th right), Deputy Speakers and Deputy Majority Leaders show their support for House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano who delivered his State of the Nation address via Zoom before Congress adjourned. Photo by VER NOVENO
Martin Romualdez

BEFORE its sine break Friday, the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading six major pieces of legislation that aim to strengthen government's efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) and mitigate the economic impact of the global health crisis.

As promised, we worked round the clock to ensure the approval of major anti-COVID measures that were filed in the House of Representatives. I thank my fellow House Members for rising to the challenge of the times, working until 12 midnight and attending sessions that lasted until Thursday and Friday," said House Majority

Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, who co-chairs the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee with Speaker Cayetano.

"These landmark measures are the contribution of the House of Representatives in the war against the COVID-19. We go on sine die adjournment today (Friday), fully satisfied that we have done our work in this age of pandemic.

Topping the list of anti-COVID measures was House Bill 6815 or the P1.3 trillion Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy of the Philippines (ARISE Philippines Act), which is crafted primarily to protect jobs and bail out job-creating businesses.

"The Department of Labor and Employment is not discounting the possibility that 10 million workers in the country will lose their jobs this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We acted with dispatch in approving the ARISE Philippines Act to save our people from joblessness and their families from starvation," said Romualdez,

chairman of the powerful House Committee on Rules.

"With this measure, we hope to protect the jobs of 62 percent of our country's workforce who are employed in MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises)," Romualdez explained.

The P1.3-trillion ARISE Philippines Act includes, among others, a budget of P650 billion for an expanded infrastructure program on health care, education and food security.  A P20-billion fund was also allotted for mass testing.

Another measure approved before the legislative break was HB  6865 or the “Crushing COVID-19 Act", which mandates the conduct of baseline Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing as the protocol for COVID-19 testing for the vulnerable members of the society, including those who do not have symptoms.

The bill, if passed into law, would require the government to use the RT-PCR test for the following:

* Patients and health workers with either mild to severe symptoms, or no symptoms but with history of travel or contact with a confirmed case;

* Non-health frontliners responding to the pandemic;

* Filipino workers with preexisting medical condition;

* Persons, both Filipinos and foreigners, entering the Philippines from abroad;

* Filipino workers who have quarantine passes and do most errands for their households;

* Patients required by their doctors to submit an RT-PCR test result prior to a treatment or procedure.

Also approved on third reading last Tuesday was HB 6817 or the proposed COVID-19-Related Anti-Discrimination Act, which seeks to protect persons who are confirmed, suspect or probable COVID-19 cases.

Discrimination is also prohibited against essential and frontline workers, healthcare workers, responders, recognized volunteers, stranded individuals, service workers, repatriated OFWs and family members of the mentioned categories.

Persons who are found guilty of acts such as harassment, assault, unjust distinction, exclusion or restriction against individuals who fit in the categories can be imprisoned for a year up to 10 years.

Another anti-COVID measure passed was HB 6816 or the proposed Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST) Act, which seeks to help financial institutions to resolve their debts and manage their non-performing assets (NPAs) during and after the pandemic.

Under the bill, the Central Bank is mandated to provide the local banking system with the support it needs to insulate itself from a buildup of bad loans that may result from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Also approved was HB 6895 or “An Act To Lengthen the School Calendar From Two Hundred Days to Not More Than Two Hundred Twenty Class Days,” which empowers the President to set a different date for the start of the school year during a state of emergency or state of calamity.

Last to hurdle plenary approval Friday before the break was HB 6920 or the COVID-19 Unemployment Reduction Economic Stimulus (CURES) Act of 2020.

The proposed CURES Act aims to empower the government to tap into a P1.5-trillion Cures Fund, where P500 billion would be released annually in the next 3 years to fund construction projects in five sectors affected by the coronavirus crisis – health, education, agriculture, local roads, and livelihood.

Infrastructure projects would include barangay health centers, municipal and city hospitals, digital equipment for COVID-19 testing, telemedicine services to post-harvest facilities, trading centers, and farm-to-market roads.

The House of Representatives also approved on second reading HB  6864 or the proposed "Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities and Public Spaces Act of 2020" to prepare and educate Filipinos for life through new norms of social or physical distancing and safety measures in government and private offices, schools, commercial establishments and other public spaces.

Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte, principal authors of CURES, said the measure or the three-year stimulus will restart the stalled economy back on its high-growth path and an initial booster as well for President Duterte’s new initiative to decongest Metro Manila by creating a lot more infrastructure jobs in the countryside.

Villafuerte said this will further raise state spending on health, education, agriculture, local roads, livelihood, information and communication technology (ICT) and tourism (HEAL IT) infrastructure.

“This measure aims to blunt the impact of what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects to be the worst global recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s by stimulating economic activity and creating so many jobs in the countryside,” Villafuerte said. “In so doing, CURES will at the same time boost President Duterte’s Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa program by encouraging city dwellers to return to their home provinces amid the prospects of more employment and livelihood opportunities in the regions outside the national capital.”

The CURES bill  proposes a three-year, P1.5-trillion stimulus program anchored on infrastructure spending, particularly outside Metro Manila, as the “cures’ to reset the economy and generate a lot of jobs following the sudden work stoppage set off by the quarantine measures that were effected in mid-March to hold back the Covid-19 pandemic.

With infrastructure investments having the highest multiplier effect on the economy, Villafuerte said “the House passed the CURES bill in a bid to dramatically raise state spending on  HEAL IT projects and thus spur the domestic economy’s quick recovery from the coronavirus pandemic’s  economic fallout.”

The bill’s other main sponsors are Cayetano, Romualdez; Deputy Speakers Paolo Duterte and Loren Legarda; and Reps. Eric Yap, Maria Laarni Cayetano, Michael Defensor and Jose Antonio Sy-Alvarado.

The CURES bill seeks to create, appropriate and automatically release a special outlay dubbed the CURES Fund equivalent to P1.5 trillion over a three-year period to bankroll infrastructure projects in the HEAL IT priority areas, at P500 billion-worth of projects per year.

Chosen projects should be “shovel-ready” or ready for construction within 90 days after the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) certifies actual fund release.