As the Senate discussed the measure extending the Bayanihan Law, Senator Kiko Pangilinan asked if the government has slowed down the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic after spending P353 billion for this purpose.

“We’d like to know: We’ve spent 353 billion [pesos]. We will allocate another 130-140 billion [pesos]…With all the money spent in the last several months, where are we in terms of curbing the spread of the virus? Have we flattened the curve?” Pangilinan asked.

“Is there a way for us to get a better sense of how we’re going to achieve what we set out to do? Because the target is May, and apparently, we’ve not reached that,” the veteran legislator added, referring to the target of 1 million tests and 30,000 tests daily by May.

Senate Bill 1654 or the “Bayanihan to Recover as One Act” aims to provide the President the necessary powers to implement the national response on the COVID-19 pandemic for an additional three months. It also seeks to provide mechanisms for economic recovery.

The seasoned lawmaker raised the issues of inadequate mass testing and delayed reporting of COVID-19 data, citing the mass confusion over the results, to characterize government’s performance during the Bayanihan period.

“We have yet to achieve the targets in terms of mass testing and yet we’ve had the longest lockdown.”

“There are concerns about the last three months that we have yet to achieve the targets in terms of mass testing and yet we’ve had the longest lockdown, one of the longest if not the longest lockdown,” the senator said.

“And some are saying that our approach was too militaristic in nature rather than public health-oriented… We are concerned. For example, we are now on our fourth month, do we have enough testing kits? What is the buffer stock of testing kits for our government facilities?” he asked.

Senator Sonny Angara, principal sponsor of SB 1654, shared Pangilinan’s concerns, saying that he also asked Health Secretary Francisco Duque III why the Red Cross can release its test results faster than the Department of Health.

“The issue of backlog, late data on results, obviously will lead to poor contact tracing and leading to the inability or failure to isolate high-risk people If a private hospital can achieve a faster turnaround, why can’t government do the same?” Pangilinan asked.

Angara, who recovered from COVID-19, also confirmed that turnaround time of results in some cases take up to 10 days, compared to the private sector which only takes 2 to 4 days

Pangilinan also raised the slow accreditation of testing laboratories. He expressed disappointment that government accredited 30 percent of those that applied two months ago, slightly increasing to 38 percent now.

While the Philippines has 49 accredited laboratories with 81 pending, Vietnam has 112 and South Korea has 500 testing centers. “This gives us a sense of where we are and where they are in terms of managing the spread [of the disease],” he pointed out.

“Many workers are afraid to report for work, employers are asking about testing…This [the slow increase in testing and accreditation of test labs] is not acceptable. I think the Oversight that we will create must be able to step on toes to get the testing and accreditation of testing facilities done,” Pangilinan added.

He said he is raising these issues to appeal to the DOH leadership and bureaucracy to act with a sense of urgency as the situation is emergency in nature.

“The bureaucracy will have to give way to the emergency.”

“I’m just raising these concerns and placing them on record as an appeal as well to the agencies to walk the walk and talk the talk…It looks like the bureaucracy, at some point, will have to give way to the emergency rather than the emergency adjusting to the bureaucracy,” Pangilinan stressed.

He also shared the concern of fellow senators that health frontliners have died without receiving the benefits specified in the Bayanihan Law due to the absence of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR).

“This is truly disappointing and truly indicative of the lack of compassion of whoever in the DoH is supposed to have addressed this with the IRR. This is unacceptable and unforgivable. They have already died. They have already suffered. And we continue to allow [their families] to suffer more because of this failure and inaction on the part of the Department of Health. This is completely and totally unacceptable and we seek the Senate leadership’s intervention here to make sure that this is addressed squarely and immediately,” Pangilinan said.

On June 1, Metro Manila transitioned to General Community Quarantine despite spikes in confirmed COVID-19 cases. The DOH has taken to reporting “fresh” cases separate from “late” cases as an attempt to address the backlogs in test results.

The effectivity of Bayanihan to Heal As One Act ends on June 23. Congress adjourned on June 4.

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