Prioritize Support for the Public Health System! Pass a Supplemental Budget for Public Health Response to COVID-19 Now!

A Statement of Government Watch (G-Watch)* on the COVID-19 Crisis

A crisis like no other is upon us. The COVID-19 pandemic has already killed 12 people in the Philippines with 140 found positive cases as of March 15, 2020. The numbers continue to grow. In the world, more than 140,000 people have been infected by this deadly virus and has claimed the lives of almost 6,000 individuals.

In response to the threat of COVID-19, the Duterte administration has passed a policy last March 14 placing Metro Manila under ‘community quarantine.’ This is currently being carried out through social distancing measures, curfews and control of entry points to and from Metro Manila.

The piling cases of COVID-19 patients puts a heavy toll on our public health system. Last March 15, the Philippine Heart Center (PHC) had to place on quarantine 39 of its personnel—including seven doctors and 19 nurses—after being exposed to COVID-19.

At the same time, the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) has also announced that it lacks the much-needed medical supplies such as surgical and N95 masks, face shields, surgical gowns, and even alcohol.

Social media is filled of accounts of health front-liners who are attesting to how public hospitals and treatment centers are being overburdened by the crisis. 

Clearly, the public health system is not prepared to face the big task of dealing with this crisis. This is not surprising. The health budget for 2020 has been cut by at least PhP10 billion. Despite the additional health budget from sin tax amounting to PhP348.2 billion since 2014, our health budget continues to drop. According to the Global Health Security Index, the Philippines was never prepared for a health emergency, scoring zero on all health security indicators. (See related Aceron and Maglanque Rappler article here:

We need to act now. We need to prioritize the support to our public health system. According to experts, the COVID-19 pandemic will peak only in April or May. Social distancing, lockdown or community quarantine measures are only aimed at ‘flattening the curve.’ This means spreading out the cases across a longer period of time to avoid overburdening the health system as a result of the steep increase in positive cases needing immediate medical attention. Hence, even if our control measures succeed, we will still see cases of infections happening across time (hopefully at a steady rate if control measures are successful). 

Our public health system needs to be better equipped to provide health care for COVID-19 patients and other people with health care needs for the long haul. The government should be able to do massive testing for COVID-19 that will allow for a more efficient health response. Cheaper and faster COVID-19 test kits must be explored, such as the test kits developed by UP scientists. With massive testing, the government can deploy more targeted, and therefore more efficient, health care that will lessen the strain on our public health system.

One sure way of quickly strengthening the public health system is by providing immediate additional budget. Local governments can use their emergency funds for this purpose. The Office of the President may also allocate some of its funds. Loans from development banks and partners can also be explored. If so, these loans should go mainly to strengthening public health response to COVID-19 and providing safety nets and social assistance to those most gravely affected, including possible remedy from SSS, PAG-IBIG and PhilHealth remittances. 

The public health system needs all our support at this time. With a crisis as large as this, the Department of Health (DOH) and all public/state hospitals need additional budget so that they can respond more decisively and comprehensively to COVID-19. The leadership of the DOH in this fight is crucial and it can only lead effectively with a bigger budget. Local governments can certainly take the lead on the ground and accomplish a lot given their mandate and resources. This needs to be claimed by citizens, alongside ensuring a stronger health response at the national level.

In this light, we call on Congress (both the Senate and the House of Representatives) to pass a Supplemental Budget for the public health system, specifically to strengthen the Philippines’ health response to COVID-19.

Since the session of Congress is currently suspended, we call on our legislators to explore holding an online/ virtual session. Everyone is now encouraged to explore work-at-home schemes as part of the social distancing policy. So should government offices. This mandate of Congress cannot wait because we are in crisis.

More than providing additional budget, an act of Congress can clarify our collective mandate on our priority approach/ response to the COVID19 crisis, which is strong, efficient and responsive public health care. 

Finally, alongside any increase in the budget for health response to COVID-19, whether it comes from a supplemental budget, Office of the President, local governments or loans from development partners, there must also be heightened transparency, access to information, citizen participation and accountability in how the funds will be utilized. This will ensure efficient and responsive use of resources for public health needed to sustain good performance. 

If we are unable to quickly strengthen the public health system, it will be the poor who will suffer the most. The poor, including the struggling middle class, simply do not have the means to access health care, especially for an illness caused by COVID-19. Most will rely on the government and public health system for the needed health care. 

If we are unable to ensure that our public health system can provide reliable testing, care and treatment of COVID-19 cases as soon as possible, our country will not be able to manage the spread of COVID-19. This will not only affect the poor but everyone. More than ever, the COVID19 crisis is showing us how interconnected we are — that ensuring public health care for the poor is ensuring health care for all. 

Prioritize Support for the Public Health System!
Pass a Supplemental Budget for Public Health Response to COVID-19 Now!

* Government Watch (G-Watch) is formerly a social accountability program of a university founded in 2000 that has rebooted into an independent national citizen action and research for accountability that aims to contribute in the deepening of democracy through political reform and citizen empowerment.