MANILA — The Philippine legislature on Tuesday granted President Rodrigo Duterte “special powers” to tackle the coronavirus, including the authority to take over private hospitals.
Bills declaring a national emergency passed in a landslide vote at the Senate and House of Representatives, and are now ready for Duterte’s signature.
A controversial initial draft of the proposal gave Duterte the power to take over any “privately owned public utility or business affected with public interest,” including but not limited to hotels, public transportation, and telecommunications. It also allowed Duterte to unilaterally realign the government budget and to keep these powers for as long as he sees fit.
The comparatively less expansive version passed by congress now limits budget realignment powers to the executive department, and requires congress to approve any extension of Duterte’s powers.
It also allows for hazard pay and compensation for health workers and their families, and financial assistance for low income households.
“If this is implemented properly, this will escalate the response of the national government to the crisis,” said political analyst Antonio La Viña. “So far, that response has been underwhelming as local officials, businesses, and citizens, especially the poor, have been left on their own to respond to covid-19.”
Still, he urged Filipinos to stay vigilant of further government actions, as the initial draft of the law would have diminished civil rights.
The Free Legal Assistance Group, an organization of human rights lawyers, said that the proposed powers were unnecessary and failed to set a national policy to address the pandemic.
The Philippines now has over 500 coronavirus cases, with half the population under stringent quarantine. Critics of Duterte’s government have raised concerns about stranded health workers and commuters, the prioritization of politicians over patients in covid-19 testing, and unlawful arrests in the past week.