Robredo hits ‘disconnect’ between COVID-19 fight, 2022 budget priorities

MANILA, Philippines — A visibly frustrated Vice President Leni Robredo pointed on Sunday to “a lot of disconnect” between the urgent need to control the surge in COVID-19 cases and the government’s 2022 budget priorities, noting the lack of funds for health workers’ benefits and the reduced allocation for the country’s main testing center.

In her weekly radio show on dzXL, Robredo said she had long wanted to volunteer to be the “conductor” for the country’s pandemic response efforts but knew it would be a futile effort, given her not-so-friendly relationship with the Palace.

“We have been doing this for a long time [and] it seems there’s no conductor here,” she said. “If I can only volunteer, I would, but it’s hard. If they won’t give me blanket authority anyway, there’s no point.”

Last week, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told lawmakers that the Department of Budget and Management had slashed P73.9 billion from his department’s proposed 2022 budget even as the country’s healthcare system was buckling under the strain of a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant.

The amount would have covered at least P50.4 billion in health workers’ special risk allowances and hazard pay, plus other benefits and the hiring of additional personnel.

Also affected was the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the country’s main COVID-19 testing center, which had its proposed budget next year cut by P170 million.

“Why would you do this? That’s our most important function right now and yet you will slash their budget?” Robredo asked. “I don’t understand. There seems to be a lot of disconnect from above.”

There was no immediate comment from Malacañang.

Over the past weeks, the lack of funding and support for medical frontliners has prompted many of them to resign, further straining the already overburdened health- care system.

Robredo also questioned why Congress infused more funds for President Rodrigo Duterte’s flagship “Build, Build, Build” program — which would get P1 trillion in his final year in office — even as the Department of Health (DOH) suffered major budget cuts.

While she recognized that infrastructure was “important in getting our economy back on track,” it seemed “wrong” to prioritize it over the country’s pandemic response.

“Regardless of how much you give the Department of Public Works and Highways, if people get sick and die, then it’s all for naught,” Robredo said.

She also criticized Malacañang for its “lame attempt” to dig up the procurement of personal protective equipment under the Aquino administration to distract public attention from allegations of overpriced medical supplies under the current government.

Integrity issues

Even the president of the country’s largest business organization has also expressed frustration over “integrity issues” in the government’s procurement of medical supplies during the pandemic and the use of lockdowns as its primary tool to combat COVID-19.

In a sign of the business sector’s growing disenchantment with the Duterte administration’s pandemic response, Benedicto Yujuico of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) aired some of his group’s grievances in his opening remarks during their general membership meeting held virtually on Friday.

While Yujuico acknowledged that the government was “doing its best to implement programs and reforms to mitigate the impact of the COVID crisis,” he said it was “disheartening to learn of the integrity issues over the procurement of certain equipment and supplies needed to combat COVID-19 and other related issues.”

It wasn’t the first time a PCCI official had publicly commented about transparency issues on COVID-19 funds.

In August, its acting president, Edgardo Lacson, defended the Commission on Audit (COA), which had come under attack from Duterte for its reports raising red flags on deficiencies in the DOH’s utilization of its funds.

“The (COA) reports are not accusations of corruption but a starting point for discussing alleged deficiencies in government spending,” he said in an Aug. 23 statement.

During his speech on Friday, Yujuico said the business sector had suffered “a catastrophic episode” due to the pandemic with more than four million jobs lost and 100,000 businesses closed, most of them micro, small, and medium enterprises.

“Even the big companies have not been spared,” he noted.

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