House leader urges modified Luzon-wide ECQ extension

A House leader on Wednesday backed President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte’s decision to extend the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) until April 30 to ensure the success of the defeat coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) campaign.

However,  Deputy Speaker and Camarins Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte proposed that the two-week extension be a modified, area-specific lockdown that will “reboot certain businesses along with the government’s infrastructure buildup program in order to  rejuvenate the economy even before the coronavirus pandemic is over.”

Villafuerte, a member of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee, said the President’s signature initiative “Build, Build, Build” program must be put back on track as infrastructure investments offer the highest multiplier effects, including job generation, on the economy—and could thus stimulate high growth even while the health crisis is still raging across the globe.

“The President’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ is an engine of growth and should thus be put back on track during the extended ECQ period.

The revival and acceleration of infrastructure investments are guaranteed to re-ignite economic activity and create jobs, especially for a lot of Filipino workers dependent on the ‘no-work, no-pay’ setup who have lost their means of livelihood when the domestic economy ground to a halt last month,” said Villafuerte.

Villafuerte added that if more funds are needed for social amelioration or to beef up the protection and resources of our frontline healthcare workers in fighting the pandemic, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) should consider realigning funds for non-essential items in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) to this purpose.

The Camarines Sur lawmaker proposed anew to the DBM to take “a long hard look” at adjusting 2020 GAA items for non-essential expenditures, with the would-be savings to be used to augment public funds for what is turning out to be a protracted battle against Covid. He pointed out that even the President's economic team led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III has bared plans to boost infrastructure spending as a way to avoid a slow economic recovery.

Dominguez was quoted as saying that the government will "boost infrastructure spending as it will create jobs, stimulate demand and provide enhancement of connectivity."

The finance chief added that "the robust fiscal position we built up will serve us well."

Villafuerte said that “forced savings in non-essential spending such as those on foreign travel or the purchase of brand-new official vehicles plus office supplies and equipment should go to a pool that the national government could use to expand and extend its programs to cushion the economic fallout from the pandemic and to better equip the country’s health workers in saving lives and treating infected Filipinos.”

He said the DBM should also look at realigning 2020 allocations for, among others, the Armed Forces modernization program, whose procurements could be made later after the pandemic; the budget for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that has been postponed to next year; and the outlays for tourism expos and investment roadshows abroad, as the internal travel and business communities are obviously in no mood to entertain such activities at this time amid the global health crisis.

Villafuerte added the DBM has all the more reason now to consider realignments in the 2020 GAA, as President Duterte candidly said on Monday night that the government's initial P275 billion budget for the anti-COVID efforts wouldn’t be enough, and that he had directed Secretary Dominguez to look for all measures to augment the funds.

Responding to the President’s announcement on Monday night on extending the ECQ until April 30, Villafuerte said the two-week extension is necessary to further stop the spread of the highly contagious virus, considering it was still to early to tell if there was already a “flattening of the curve” or a slowdown in community transmission.

Villafuerte said the extension should be a modified, area-specific lockdown that will keep most people at home but allowing the resumption of certain businesses, especially those in vital sectors such as the food and health industries, to revive the economy and ensure the steady supply of foodstuff, medicines, health products and protective equipment.”

“Certain businesses need to reopen, subject of course to the strict observance of social distancing and hygiene protocols by employers and their employees, in order to somehow revive the domestic economy this early after its sudden stop, following the implementation of personal movement restrictions in Luzon and other parts of the country to stop the quick spread of Covid-19,” he said.

A successful young entrepreneur prior to joining electoral politics, Villafuerte said certain enterprises must be allowed to reopen for business to save them from possible insolvency and termination of their employees. “Moreover, allowing them to reopen for business would let these enterprises put their employees back to work  and let them regain their means of livelihood,” he added.

The lead author of the House version of Republic Act (RA) No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Villafuerte said he supports the proposal of business groups for the lockdown to be a location-specific one covering hotspot communities, or those with high infection cases, while the ECQ lifted but social distancing protocols remain in the other areas where the number of infections is down or gone.