Facing the Pandemic: Citizen Entitlements During COVID-19

By: Francis Isaac and Joy Aceron*

In his book Politics the philosopher Aristotle said that governments are meant to embody the “most authoritative good of all.” He argued that since it is in our nature as human beings to band together “for the sake of living well,” then the government has the obligation to guarantee the eudaimonia or welfare of all its citizens. 

This Aristotelian concept of politics found resonance among our revolutionary forebears, including the young Emilio Jacinto who asserted that a public official’s reason for being is the people’s interest and welfare. It is also reflected in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which states that, “the prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people.” The succeeding section further underscores this principle, declaring that “the promotion of the general welfare (is) essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy.” 

Citizen Entitlement during Crisis

To achieve this end, the government must allocate a portion of its funds so that it can provide its citizens with certain entitlements. It must be pointed out, however, that entitlements are not synonymous with rights. The latter may be regarded as a set of legal and ethical norms that call for the humane and dignified treatment of every individual. Entitlements, on the other hand, refer to the binding obligation of the government to provide certain benefits to specific recipients who have met all legally established criteria.

This duty of the government to deliver entitlements becomes even more necessary during periods of crisis, which worsens the condition of the poor and the vulnerable. We can see this in the current health crisis caused by COVID-19. 

First reported in November 2019, the virus has since spread to 215 countries, infecting 3.6 million people. Here in the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) reported that the number of COVID-19 cases has already surpassed the 10,000-mark and that the disease has already claimed more than 600 lives. 

But apart from its health repercussions, COVID-19 has also affected the livelihood of millions of Filipinos. In April alone, more than 2.3 million workers were displaced because of the virus. And the figures will further increase by the end of the year. 

Government Response 

To mitigate the social and economic dislocation brought about by the ongoing health crisis, the government launched the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) in late March of this year. The aim of this program is to provide emergency subsidy to 18 million low-income households in the form of cash and non-cash benefits for two months, from April to May 2020. Every month, each household-beneficiary will receive between Php5,000 to Php8,000 depending on the prescribed minimum wage rate per region, to cover basic necessities such as food, medicine and toiletries. 

To receive this entitlement, the target beneficiary must belong to any of the following vulnerable sectors: senior citizens, persons with disability (PWDs), pregnant and lactating women, solo parents, distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), indigent indigenous people, homeless citizens, farmers, fisherfolks, self-employed, informal settlers, and those under No Work-No Pay arrangements (such as drivers, house-helpers, construction workers, etc.).

SAP is divided into 13 sub-programs, each catering to a particular sector and administered by a specific department of the executive branch. The SAP program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development provides assistance to more 18 million indigent Filipinos, covering both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). Most of the recipients are non-4Ps beneficiaries numbering13.5 million people. Another 4.4 million indigents are considered as non-4Ps beneficiaries, while a third category include 90,000 displaced workers from the transportation sector.


On May 4, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte submitted his 6th Report to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee. In this document, the country’s Chief Executive indicated that more than Php108 billion has ben allocated for the Social Amelioration Program. From this amount, Php100.9 billion has been set aside for AICS. The report further adds that as of April 30 of this year, Php98 billion had already been disbursed to the various LGUs.

This is a hefty sum which (if distributed properly) can greatly ease the burden of millions of Filipinos. However, the report also suggests that there are considerable backlogs in the delivery of the benefits. In fact, the document reveals that while 97% of the total allocated funds have already been downloaded to the local governments, only 55% of the total disbursed funds (amounting to Php54.6 billion) have been transferred to the actual beneficiaries.

Looking at the report, it is clear that the government has performed relatively well in assisting 4Ps beneficiaries, with 86% already receiving their AICS subsidy. On the other hand, only 47% of non-4Ps beneficiaries have received the assistance promised under this scheme.

According to the report, non-4Ps beneficiaries are entitled to Php82 billion in subsidy, which is to be transferred by DSWD to 1,634 LGUs scattered across the country. As of April 30, Php80.5 billion had already been disbursed to 1,515 local government units, or 92% of the target LGUs. However, only 46% of the downloaded funds have been released to the target beneficiaries. This means that the actual payout transfer is just Php37.6 billion, and that only 6.4 million beneficiaries have so far received their expected subsidy.

The numbers indicated in the President’s 6th Report can be compared to the AICS reports from the field offices of DSWD. The research group Government Watch (G-Watch) was able to get copies of these reports, which it then collated and consolidated. (See here for G-Watch’s report on SAP)

According to the G-Watch report on SAP, the information from DSWD, which covers up to April 24, slightly differ from the report of the President, due probably to data gaps in the former’s field-level reports. However, the overall trend indicated in the consolidated reports remain fairly consistent with the information that has been provided by the Office of the President. And the trend is far from reassuring.

According to the DSWD, 12 out of 16 regions have a disbursement rate of 90% to 100% for non-4Ps beneficiaries. This means that most of the allocated AICS funds have already been downloaded to the LGUs and should be ready for distribution to the actual recipients. But despite these glowing figures, the payout rate remains exceedingly low, with nine (9) regions recording figures below 25%.

Time standard is crucial to citizen entitlements during crisis

Without doubt, the delays in the delivery of SAP benefits undermine the entitlements that citizens are supposed to receive. After all, the government is duty-bound to ensure the efficient and timely implementation of the Social Amelioration Program, since it is both mandated by law and guaranteed in various policy documents. At the same time, SAP recipients view these benefits as a necessity, both for their immediate survival and eventual recovery. 

As pointed out by the G-Watch Report on SAP, the absence of a standard timeline in the delivery of SAP benefits is one of major gaps in exacting accountability from SAP. So far, the government has not yet issued any standard timeline for SAP implementation that could guide officials and citizens alike. This situation has often led to confusion and unrealistic expectations. In fact, there were beneficiaries who thought that their SAP benefits will be made available immediately after it was announced by President Duterte.

As the G-Watch report on SAP recommends:

“It helps to set an acceptable timeframe for relief assistance: how much time is acceptable and still observant to the needs and entitlements of citizens. There should be a proactive and holistic accountability mechanism to ensure compliance to standards. Any locality or concerned government office that does not abide by the standard time (and other standards critical to citizen entitlements during disaster) should explain why they were delayed. There should be appropriate penalties for those whose justification is not acceptable and should be consistently carried out. Providing incentives to those with high levels of compliance is also a promising way to encourage good performance.

Establishing a standard timeline would hopefully provide a guide so that citizens can determine whether their entitlements are being served or are being undermined. This would also establish the specific accountability of public officials, and help identify where the backlogs are exactly located. By repeatedly following the timeline and promptly addressing issues as they arise, the government can better secure the welfare of its people and improve its delivery of entitlements.

After all, it was Aristotle who reminded us, “quality is not an act, but a habit.”

* Francis Isaac holds a master’s degree in International Studies from De La Salle University. Joy Aceron is the convenor-director of G-Watch and a research-fellow adviser at Accountability Research Center.