Post-COVID 19 crisis measures pushed

A House leader on Monday pushed a trio of measures to be put on the fast lane under the post-coronavirus “new normal” scenario, to avoid a repeat of the initial delay in the release of P200 billion-worth of cash aid to 18 million underprivileged families under the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP) billed as the biggest social protection initiative ever in the country’s history.

The must-do list of Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte includes the speedy and full implementation of the Philippine Identification System ID (PhilSys) project of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the National Broadband
Program (NBP) of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

Completing this list, he said, is the approval by the Congress of the “Bangko sa Barrio” bill, which aims to widen the access to financial services of unbanked Filipinos, most especially those in remote villages without any branches of private or state-run banks.

“We need to harness digital technology to bring people closer to their government, more so in the ‘new normal’ scenario after this Covid-19 crisis where variations of modified quarantine and social distancing might become the way of life and the government will probably need to extend subsidies to pre-selected groups of families and certain business sectors whenever necessary,” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte, the lead author in the House of Representatives of Republic Act (RA) No. 11469 that cleared the way to the ESP, said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) could have easily distributed the cash aid if the PSA’s National ID project was already in place, as this identification system would have profiled the 18 million target households, including their respective home addresses.

He said the Congress needs to pass the “Bangko sa Barrio” bill, which Villafuerte authored, so the government could download the cash in an instant to each and every family not only through the accredited banks, remittance centers and paycard platforms like GCash and PayMaya, but also through the bill-proposed authorized cash agents (ACAs) that the Bangkok Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and contracting banks are to tap to serve the banking needs of people in faraway barrios where there are no bank branches.

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.

Villafuerte, a member of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee monitoring the implementation of RA 11469 and the House’s Defeat Covid-19 Ad Hoc Committee, pointed out in his bill that more than 36% of municipalities in the country have no banking presence.

Meanwhile, Cebu Rep. Rodrigo Abellanosa has appealed to the Task Force for the Management of the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to employ a staggered lifting of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) by implementing localized Inter-Agency quarantines instead.

“This Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) has brought together the clashing issues on controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the resultant massive unemployment, public health and nutrition consequences, and the inadequacies of the government to feed millions of people. This proposal humbly offers a partial win-win solution. Instead of bugging ourselves with the issue on whether to lift or not to lift the ECQ, may I propose a staggered lifting of ECQ by concurrently transforming it into localized lockdowns or local quarantines - by barangays or clusters of puroks or sitios; and by employment communities such as construction, food production, food processing, manufacturing, call centers, building maintenance, and the like,” said Abellanosa.

Further, Abellanosa proposed that food deliveries and public transportation be allowed to operate but only within the local quarantines.

He said proper authorities must persuade supermarkets, big grocery stores, and food wholesalers to hire out-of-work drivers, cashiers, and baggers and to lease standby jeepneys, trucks, and buses to set up mobile stores in local quarantines.

“This will minimize the confusion and problems arising from the issuance of quarantine passes for people to access stores outside of the local quarantines. Police and law enforcers must actively discourage residents from going out of their local quarantines in order to effectively contain and isolate the local quarantines from each other except for health and medical reasons and the delivery of government aids but also ensure the unhampered/unimpeded movement of all food and/or non- food cargoes,” Abellanosa explained.

“We understand the public health and safety is the foremost concern of the government. But we need to come up with more creative solutions to containing this disease while ensuring that our people continue to have access to and afford basic necessities,” Abellanosa concluded.(RPP)

To make sure the government could make seamless online transfers of cash to beneficiaries of future subsidy programs via all banks, remittance centers, Paccar platforms or his proposed ACAs, Villafuerte further 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.

Villafuerte said DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan should speed up implementation of the Tripartite Agreement allowing his Department to harness the dark fiber or unused fiber optic cables of the National Transmission Corp. (TransCo) now being managed by the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP).

He noted that while the money was apparently the least of the DSWD’s concerns in implementing the ESP, what had initially delayed the distribution of the financial relief to the families most affected by the pandemic was the absence of a nationwide database identifying the 18 million target beneficiaries.

This was the reason why DSWD Secretary Rolando Bautista needed to issue Social Amelioration Cards (SACs) to the family heads of each beneficiary-household and for subsequent vetting by local officials and the DSWD central office, he said.

Because of this process, Villafuerte said the DSWD was able to begin distributing the cash assistance only last weekend, or almost two weeks after the Congress convened in a March 23 special session to grant special powers to President Duterte for his government to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the absence of national IDs for all Filipinos, he said the DSWD opted to initially give out the ESP aid to the over 4 million
conditional cash transfer (CCT) beneficiaries of its Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps).

Villafuerte said the DSWD could have done better in speeding up the ESP by distributing right away the cash to an estimated 15 million families, inclusive of the 4Ps beneficiaries, on the department’s Listahanan list of poor and low-income families and other underprivileged sectors.

Villafuerte pointed out that the DSWD’s Listahanan list  also includes about 5.6 million non-CTT beneficiaries such as senior citizens, solo parents and persons with disabilities (PWDs) plus 5 million more low-income families who are similarly qualified to receive ESP benefits—or a total of some 15 million households.

A portion of these Listahanan households are also beneficiaries of unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) granted to low-income families affected by the initial impact of the tax hikes under the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN), he said.

He said the PSA had initially planned to have all Filipinos  here and abroad enrolled under the  PhilSys by mid-2020 this year, and started pilot-testing it by registering certain sectors in November  2019.

However, he said, the PSA still has to award the contract for Phase 2 of PhilSys—the Automated Biometric Information System (ABIS)—which involves encoding the biometric and other information of all Filipino citizens into the system and in their respective national IDs.

A co-author of RA 11055 or the PhilSys Act, Villafuerte explained that the National ID system will authenticate the identity of all Filipino citizens and resident aliens  in all government and private sector transactions—including applications for driver’s license, passport, tax-related transactions, voter registration, application to schools and bank transactions.

Once this National ID system is fully in place,  there will be no need to provide government offices or private establishments with multiple IDs just to prove one’s  identity when processing official documents or securing permits, Villafuerte said.