Red Cross in the crosshairs

In the continuing theater of the absurd, President Duterte has trained his sights firmly on, not Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., but the Philippine Red Cross. The trading company that bagged billion-peso contracts for medical supplies despite a mere P625,000 as paid-up capital would have been a logical target in his whiff-of-corruption campaign. But instead he is coming for the Red Cross and its chair, Sen. Richard Gordon, who also chairs the Senate blue ribbon committee that is investigating Pharmally’s role in an apparent huge rip-off of public funds.

Mr. Duterte announced on Saturday a planned tit for tat: “This is how our game will go. You find fault in us, and we will find fault in you.” He said he was sure to find “plenty of … whatever” in “begin[ning] first” with Gordon, and reiterated that he would sic the Commission on Audit (COA) on the finances of the Red Cross. He warned that Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon was also a target, and cited the latter’s supposed questionable connections.

And he threatened to end government transactions with the Red Cross if it would refuse to submit its financial records for accounting. He said the Red Cross — an autonomous humanitarian organization over which, the COA earlier said, it had no jurisdiction — was receiving money from such government agencies as the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, “and, therefore, an audit is in order.”

Why is the President feeling compelled to dig for dirt? Earlier, he bristled at what was being uncovered in the Senate blue ribbon inquiry into the government’s purchase of overpriced medical supplies through Pharmally, and demanded that the senators desist from further looking into the matter. But he could not stop the hearings, with the senators serving notice that a coequal branch of government would not be bullied into folding an investigation that has established, among other suspicious findings, that Pharmally managed to grab the lion’s share of contracts from the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management out of the P42 billion transferred by the Department of Health to it, and that his good friend and former economic adviser, Michael Yang, was a key figure in the transactions.

Already, a Pharmally executive has claimed receiving a death threat for testifying at the Senate inquiry. Adding to the tangled web swiftly unraveling, the President has come to Yang’s defense, saying he ordered his friend to arrange deals with Chinese companies — thus leading him, in Gordon’s estimation, to implicate himself.

Into this bubbling cauldron has been dropped the Red Cross, the audit of which Mr. Duterte is avowedly prepared to go into “a long legal battle” for, if COA chair Michael Aguinaldo refuses to undertake it. Aguinaldo has since said that state auditors could examine the payments made by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) to the Red Cross. Last heard about in relation to payments, PhilHealth is in debt to the humanitarian agency in terms of hundreds of billions of pesos.

In a statement, the Red Cross acknowledged receiving donations from government agencies — funds that, it said, it had “faithfully accounted … in compliance with the [donors’] liquidation and reportorial requirements.” It claimed no “adverse finding” in the COA’s examination of these agencies’ donations (in stark contrast, it must be pointed out, to the state auditors’ discovery of certain agencies’ questionable transactions in 2020). The Red Cross also said the Office of the President may avail itself of pertinent reports directly from these donating agencies or from the COA itself.

As ubiquitous as the Red Cross is in daily life — “always first, always ready, always there,” its secretary general Elizabeth Zavalla reminded Filipinos on ANC — it’s easy to forget its value, or even what it’s doing in the time of the pandemic. Per Dr. Noel Bernardo, its clinical services coordinator, the Red Cross is the country’s “biggest COVID-19 testing institution,” performing almost a fourth of all tests done, with 14 molecular labs in strategic locations nationwide. It treats COVID patients for free in its emergency field hospitals in 61 locations, and conducts “safe, accessible and free” COVID vaccination programs, especially in remote and disadvantaged areas.

It provides free dialysis sessions, ambulance services, and even hot meals for those in quarantine. It is establishing community-based isolation units to protect COVID patients and their families. Here are some figures: “more than 4 million Filipinos tested, 200,000 vaccinated, 35,000 treated, and 3,000 communities protected.”

This is what Malacañang is ranging its guns on as the health crisis deepens, and as corruption shows its face so vividly that the bishops are moved to call on the faithful to resist “the tide of murders and plunder.”

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