Villafuerte proposes ‘new normal’ measures

AS the 18th Congress reopens this week, Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte on Sunday called on senators to give urgent attention to three measures that would let Filipinos best adapt to the “better normal” way of life in a world that is not likely to get rid anytime soon of the highly infectious, lethal coronavirus that has thus far sickened over 78,000 people in the country.

Villafuerte appealed to the Senate to put on its priority list its counterpart measures to House Bill (HB) No. 6864 prescribing a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to strict mandatory safety and physical distancing protocols, HB 1248 on E-Government and HB 1297 authorizing cash agents to help serve the banking needs of people in faraway villages without banks.

“Our senators could help Filipinos best adapt to the new world order by passing their own versions of these three House-approved measures, more so now when the World Health Organization (WHO) itself is bracing for a protracted pandemic and has called on countries to safeguard against what it called ‘a new and dangerous phase’ of the Covid-19 contagion,” said Villafuerte.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier there will be no return to the “old normal” for the forseeable future, as the world is now in “a new and dangerous phase” with countries starting to reopen their societies and economies even as the virus is “still spreading fast, it’s still deadly, and most people are still susceptible.”

For Tedros, the pandemic has already changed the way people live their lives and that part of adjusting is “finding ways to live our lives

Villafuerte said that these three measures acted upon by the House before the Congress adjourned sine die last June 5 would equip Filipinos to live their lives safely over the next year at the least, when a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 is not expected to be developed yet for commercial production and sale.

“Hence, I am appealing to our senators to put these three measures on top of their concerns when the Second Regular Session of the 18th
Congress opens this week,” said Villafuerte who co-authored these three bills.

Villafuerte was the lead proponent in the House of Republic Act (RA) No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which gave President Duterte special powers to deal with the Covid-19 crisis over the March-June 2020 period, and co-chairman of the social amelioration cluster of the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee (DCC) chaired by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

Aside from prescribing the obligatory health and safety protocols like social distancing, frequent hand-washing and use of facial masks in public to avoid Covid-19 infection, Villafuerte said that HB No. 6864 will clear the way to the  speedy migration of the economy to digitalization, which has become  indispensable in the face of the unprecedented global health crisis.

Villafuerte, Speaker Cayetano and over 240 other House members authored HB 6864, which the House approved on second reading before the Congress  recess, in a bid to keep in place the compulsory safety and health protocols as soon as containment measures are lifted completely and economic plus social activities are 100% back in Metro Manila and the rest of the country.

The deputy speaker said the approval by both legislative chambers of HB 6864 would let Filipinos live their lives safely as this substitute bill incorporates other  initiatives necessary in this season of the pandemic, including the fast-track and full  implementation of RA 11055 on the establishment of a  National Identification (ID) System as well as the National Broadband Plan (NBP) of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

“Under this better normal environment, contactless transactions through digital payments will be the norm,  which we hope would speed
up our transition to a digital economy, where even small entrepreneurs living in rural communities and  far-flung areas have access to this new kind of payment system," Villafuerte said.

He said that once approved by both chambers of the Congress, "this measure will help President Duterte realize his goal of financial inclusion and  improve the speed and efficiency of delivering social mitigation interventions, such as cash grants, to those who need them the most in times of crisis and calamities."

The CamSur representative said the House committee on information and communications technology (ICT), meanwhile, approved before the congressional break HB 1248, which seeks to interlink electronic or contactless services and processes in all government agencies and
corporations “to ensure that the Philippines gets ahead of the curve in the new norm of continued social distancing and digital transactions.”

Villafuerte said HB 1248 will “further improve the ease of doing business while encouraging people to keep practicing physical
distancing in the better normal by letting them transact official business without actually having to go to the various government agencies themselves.”

HB 1248 proposes, he said, the “technical and informational interoperability of the ICT systems of all government offices through the Internet-based E-Government System, to clear the way to the further improvement of the ease of doing business in the country and minimize corruption while at the same time making the Philippines ahead of the curve in the practice of social distancing under the new normal scenario of possible coronavirus outbreaks in the years to come.”

Moreover, Villafuerte said the House approved on second reading before the sine die adjournment HB No. 1297 or the ‘Bangko sa Baryo Act,”  in support of President Duterte’s policy on financial inclusion.

HB No. 1297 seeks to empower the chosen “authorized cash agents” (ACAs) to assist in performing a broad range of bank services, including forwarding account opening applications, cash-in and cash-out services, and initial customer identity verification, in remote barangays without banks.

The deputy speaker for finance said HB 1297, HB 1248 and the implementation of RA 11055 or the National ID Project, which Villafuerte also co-authored, form part of a reform package designed to let the Duterte administraion upgrade the delivery of its future
social amelioration programs (SAPs)—and avoid a repeat of the hitches that had mired the initial release of cash subsidies to 18 million
poor and low-income families hardest hit by the pandemic.

He said the Congress needs to pass the “Bangko sa Baryo” bill, so the government could download its future SAP subsidies, if any, to the
intended family-beneficiaries not only through the accredited banks, remittance centers and pay platforms like GCash and PayMaya, but also
through the bill-proposed ACAs that the Bangkok Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and contracting banks are to tap to serve the banking needs of people in distant villages.

The World Bank  has estimated that 60% of Filipinos remain unbanked while the Asian Development Bank (ADB)  bared that only 28% of Filipino adults own bank accounts, Villafuerte said.

He pointed out that more than 36% of municipalities in the country have no banking presence.

To make sure the government could make seamless online transfers of cash to beneficiaries of future subsidy programs via all  banks,
remittance centers, pay platforms or the HB 1297-proposed ACAs, Villafuerte said the DICT needs to expedite its NBP, which aims to
deploy fiber optic cables and wireless technologies, to ensure regional connectivity and improve Internet speed, especially in remote villages nationwide.