House Ways and Means Chair Joey Sarte Salceda (Albay, 2nd district) has requested President Duterte and the House leadership to convene “virtual” special sessions of Congress to enact measures, supplemental appropriations and tackle the socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a recent aide memoire addressed to Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, titled “Extraordinary measures by the House to Combat Covid-19,” Salceda said Congress should not be in recess at a time of national crisis, and that “the next two months will be extremely critical in ensuring the virus is contained.”
A noted economist and disaster emergency expert, Salceda recommends that 1) the President convenes a special session of Congress to ensure that, if necessary, decisive policy action, including funding adjustments, can be made to effectively combat Covid-19; 2) The Speaker designates a small group to come up, in consultation with public health experts and economists, with legislative measures to prevent mass transmission, contain the disease, and mitigate its socio-economic impacts, and; 3) House rules be amended temporarily to accommodate a virtual convening of session and virtual voting, in line with social distancing measures in place.”
“’Hindi po pwedeng naka-recess ang Kongreso habang may national crisis (Congress should not be in recess while a national crisis exists). If we don’t adopt radical measures, by the time we come back on May 4, infections may have reached 76,000. There are policy levers that are within the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress, such as appropriations and granting special powers to the President. Besides, it’s not sound for to be in recess while a crisis in on. We will need to convene at some point before May 4, the original resumption of session,” Salceda said.
He added: “There are critically needed interventions. My office estimates that if Congress locks down too and we fail to give the President special health emergency powers, it is possible that infections may hit 50,300 cases when Congress resumes session on May 4. By all accounts, COVID-19 “will infect hundreds, if not thousands. Fortunately, 80% of those infected have only mild symptoms, hence the low mortality. We, however, need to have our health facilities ready. Congress needs to be ready to back up the executive in the next two crucial months.”
Apart from these recommendations, Salceda said he will also file a supplemental appropriations bill that will prioritize Filipino workers and families in response to the economic impacts Covid-19. Its effects on the economy will only be temporary, but its damage to ordinary Filipinos can be staggering.
“We need to convene Congress to make sure we are equipped with the necessary policy tools until we lick the COVID menace. It does not have to be a physical meeting. I suggested to the Majority Leader that the Rules be interpreted to extend to virtual meetings. “Convening physically can be a recipe for disaster because if we are together in one area, and one of us has the infection, many others may get infected too.And they may transmit their infection to their districts. So it has to be virtual sessions which will be “consistent with social distancing efforts by the Department of Health,” Salceda explained.
“Based on our baseline estimates, if we go on lockdown next week, we may hit about 23,800 infected persons only by May 4, when we resume session as originally set. A huge number, for sure, but we will be better able to deal with it. My best data analysis suggests that if we do nothing, the figure can hit 76,000 infection cases by May 4,” he shared.
“This is so because infections get transmitted exponentially, for a period of time, and then taper down logarithmically. The earlier you shift from exponential to logarithmic increase, the fewer the cases will be at the end. In China, work and schools were completely locked down in the week of February 20; within one week, cases tapered off to logarithmic increase. So you have to do it really soon, because the earlier you do decisive measures, the quicker you reach logarithmic increase instead of exponential,” Salceda added.
He said the “chances of mortality increase can happen if our public health system hets overwhelmed, which will likely affect our entire society since our non-epidemic health services can be displaced, thus endangering the wellbeing of our labor force, our students and vulnerable sectors. So we need to contain the numbers,” he stressed.
For sure, Salceda noted, COVID-19 is not not an extremely threatening ailment, and more people get killed by lifestyle diseases every day. “We can achieve zero additional deaths from hereon, if there are facilities and national capability, and the numbers are contained. I have confidence in the policy levers available, but we have to activate them early,” Salceda said and suggested that the House leadership should also request public health authorities, primarily the DOH, to identify triggers for lockdown of strategically identified areas. Congress may enact broad measures to empower the public health authorities to impose a lockdown once these triggers are met, he pointed out.
Salceda said the House may also supplement existing powers in the Local Government Code for LGUs who may opt, upon the advice of public health authorities, to impose lockouts and restrict entry into their jurisdictions.