By Senator Pia S. Cayetano
Principal Sponsor, Bayanihan to Heal as One Act
Mr. President, I rise today on a matter of personal and collective privilege.
On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced COVID-19 as a public health emergency. I’ll quickly walk through this history to emphasize the importance of the facts that I’d like to bring up today.
On 16 March 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Philippines under a state of calamity through Proclamation No. 929 dated for a period of six (6) months.
The COVID-19 State of Calamity had been extended several times. Proclamation No. 1021, on 16 September 2020; Proclamation No. 1218, on 10 September 2021, and Proclamation No. 57, on 12 September 2022.
The Philippines’ COVID-19 State of Calamity has lapsed on the 31st of December 2022. So it has lapsed.
The DOH had, previous to this lapse, been submitting, had made statements, and submitted an official request to President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. to consider the further extension of the COVID-19 State of Calamity, to ensure that the government would be able to continue to implement the COVID-19 response strategies mandated under Republic Act No. 11525, known as the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act, and Republic Act No. 11712, known as the Public Health Emergency Benefits And Allowances For Health Care Workers Act.
A month ago, before the year ended, the President then expressed, I suppose in reaction to this request for extension, that he was hesitant to continue the state of calamity because according to him, we are technically not in a state of calamity anymore. And our good Senate President, I believe, had made a statement to the effect that it is not good for our image. And I agree with both gentlemen. But I think all of us want to move forward, all of us want to normalize our lives.
But it is incumbent upon each one of us as legislators, as a body, to ask ourselves, ano ba yung effect ng declaration of calamity na yan? Why does the DOH, our technical experts, want us to extend that? So let’s study this, your honors, and give it some time to sink in na ano ba yung effect nito sa atin? It is imperative upon us as legislators to understand what effect the declaration has on our ability to respond to any possible surge in Covid infections.
So this is our situation, your honors. There are important provisions under the laws that I mentioned that are anchored on the declaration of the state of calamity and/or public health emergency by the President of the Philippines. And that is the reason DOH emphasized that without such extension, it would affect the implementation of different COVID-19 response strategies of the government.
So bakit ba kailangan meron tayong COVID-19 response strategies? Well clearly, one of the responses was for us to get vaccinated. So if we did not get vaccinated, saan tayo ngayon, right?
So we need to ask ourselves, hindi tayo expert, I am a lawyer, my colleague over there, Sen. JV who, like me, chaired the Committee on Health, is not a doctor. I am also not a doctor. Sen. Bong Go, our current Chairman of the Committee, we’re not doctors. So we listen to the science. Why was it important that we have these laws that allowed government to take certain actions, which otherwise, without the law, they could not do. Kasi we are governed by laws. And I will go through each one.
First, the law allowed negotiated procurement of COVID-19 vaccines. Ano ang ibig sabihin nun? Ibig sabihin nun, under the law that we passed, pwedeng i-negotiate ang pagbili ng COVID-19 vaccines. Because without that law, you have to go through the public bidding under the Government Procurement Reform Act. So siguro most of us who follow this know na negotiated ang pag-procure ng mga vaccines. So if there will be another variant in the future, without a law, hindi pwede mag-negotiate. Magbi-bidding. And that would take a long time. So that is one effect. I’ll go to the next.
The authority to administer COVID-19 vaccines with emergency use authorization (EUA). Hindi ho ba naaalala niyo, na nung nagkaroon na tayo ng vaccines, andaming nagbabakuna? Every… Kada sulok, kasuluk-sulukan ng Pilipinas, may nagpapabakuna. Well yun ang goal natin. Sino nagbabakuna sa inyo? Do you know that those people who are administering the vaccines had a special authority? Kasi hindi pwedeng kung sino-sino lang nagbabakuna. Hindi pwede yun, it’s not allowed.
So Section 9 of the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act (RA 11525) specifically says that, it allowed licensed pharmacists and midwives who are duly trained by the DOH to administer COVID-19 vaccines. Without that, hindi sila pwedeng magbakuna. So kung magkakaroon ng surge, wala tayong vaccinators. We don’t have the same amount of vaccinators because they will not be allowed. So right now, hindi na sila covered.
Now, the benefits of health and non-health care workers is another thing. This is a huge help to our dedicated health workers that allowed them during this most difficult time to serve. I won’t go through the details, this has been discussed several times but there is a health emergency allowance that is given to these health workers. Sa low risk areas, P3,000; sa medium risk areas, P6,000; high risk areas P9,000. Well obviously, kung wala namang COVID, wala namang declaration and there is no need, hindi naman ho talaga kailangan ng allowance. Pero kung meron man, then there’s no basis to give them, and syempre, they deserve it naman kung nagkaroon ng emergency and nagtatrabaho naman sila. There are other details on the compensation, kapag namatay, nagkasakit, andyan yan, alam niyo na yan, I won’t go into that anymore.
Next, the utilization of appropriate funds, including the Quick Response Fund (QRF). This is so important to LGUs because the LGUs submit their requests, together with supporting documents, to the NDRRMC and mahabang diskusiyon ito. But because we have the law that allowed the use of the QRF for COVID, namamadali ang process and it becomes easier for them to access. So again, hindi nila ma-access ito without that. There are also other agencies who have built-in QRFs, including DPWH, DND, DepEd, DSWD, DA, etc.
Another important aspect that is affected by the declaration, the authority of the Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC) to make recommendations on COVID-19 vaccines based on preliminary data from Phase III clinical trials. Dear colleagues, without this specific authorization to HTAC to make those recommendations, alam niyo naman yun, kapag dini-develop ang isang drug, it takes a long time for these drugs to go to market because it must go through the process. You cannot rush the development of these drugs. But because there was an urgent need determined by WHO and all the recognized health authorities all over the world, it became a standard to allow the drugs even if they were still in Phase III, only in Phase III. So very clearly, what our law says, the HTAC shall have the authority to make recommendations to the DOH on COVID-19 vaccines based on preliminary data from Phase III clinical trials and World Health Organization recommendations, in the absence of completed Phase III and Phase IV clinical trials. So if this law is not in effect, then we cannot access vaccines. So even if the US, Japan, whoever, makes these drugs that are very effective, we cannot access them if they are only in Phase III preliminary trials because there is no law that authorizes the sale or even the donation or use of these drugs in our country.
We’d like to point out, your honor, that the WHO foresees the lifting of the declaration of the COVID-19 as a public health emergency in 2023, but it emphasized that surveillance and monitoring of infections remain critical. So even if the COVID-19 pandemic officially ends, and therefore the virus becomes endemic, the government should continue its ongoing efforts in controlling the spread of COVID-19 virus, because andyan pa rin yun. When you say the pandemic ends, it’s just a change in how the virus is moving around and affecting us. Pero andyan pa rin siya. So we still have to have actions in place. We still have to have that response available so that the most vulnerable in our country, the elderly, the PWDs, those with comorbidities, they are protected. And our health workers, they are also protected and given due recognition for the work that they have to suddenly do in case something happens.
As legislators who have worked on passing the necessary laws that were needed to urgently respond to the pandemic, we must equally be concerned about responding when the COVID-19 virus becomes endemic. Determining the effects of the non-extension of the COVID-19 State of Calamity is very important, dear colleagues.
Ensuring that our ongoing efforts to minimize the effects of COVID on our daily lives – as I mentioned, the safety and welfare of the most vulnerable, the frontliners, the health workers, the economy that we want to revive and we want to continue to see support families, all of these should not be undermined and we need to be able to respond quickly.
Thus, dear colleagues, I humbly submit that this privilege speech be taken up by the Committee on Health so that we as legislators can be responsible in our task and determine what laws need to be enacted to ensure that we learn the lessons. It’s okay, your honors… Let me rephrase my statement. The whole world seems surprised by the effects of COVID-19 and yet, there were enough signals to tell us to be prepared. Your honor, kung ngayon hindi pa tayo prepared sa susunod, wala na ho tayong iba pang sisisihin kundi sarili natin. So let us be vigilant and decisive and responsive to the task at hand, which is to ensure that we are ready for any not even COVID alone, but for future pandemics, health emergencies. And let us pass the laws that will allow our technical people, our health workers, our frontliners, to respond with haste and responsibly as well.
Thank you, Mr President, dear colleagues.#