Bicolano group urges gov’t officials to unite

A non-government organization (NGO) composed of professionals, health and environment advocates, academics and people’s organizations in the region has called on appointive and elective government officials to unite in enforcing the directives of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Law that gave the President more powers to fight the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

In a letter sent to President Rodrigo R. Duterte and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), the Tabang Bikol Movement (TBM) said in order to win the war against Covid-19, government officials must unite and avoid disunity and confusion, which only cause people to lose trust on promised services.

More than a week since the President’s announcement on the emergency cash assistance, delay has stalled distribution of the Social Amelioration Cards (SACs) and the cash aid in many provinces including the Bicol region, TBM said.

TBM pointed to the following reasons for the delay: an outdated list of the official poor based on the 2015 Listahanan; too many layers of implementation, heavy documentary requirements and bureaucratic red tape; and the pesky problem of petty politicking and internal squabbling among local officials.

Unless these gridlocks are promptly removed, it will take more days or more than a week before the cash aid is released. The poor will be more restive and precious time wasted that will cost more lives down the line. Worst, any more delay opens up more windows of opportunity to a twin problem of the corona virus, the equally dangerous political virus of corruption, TBM said.

Based on its monitoring in the provinces of Camarines Sur, Masbate and Albay, TBM said distributing only a few SAC or Social Amelioration Cards (SAC) and reconciling them with the actual number of poor in their locality further adds up to the delay.

TBM said a barangay kagawad in Masbate said “Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) gave them a quota of cards to distribute, so if they are not able to give to the other poor, they receive a backlash and they are blamed for choosing only those they know.”

The group requested the President and the IATF to order the DSWD to relax the procedures for re-listing and validation (those who have received and not received any government cash aid) and open up more venues for inclusion of those who are most in need and have not been recipient of any government assistance so that the emergency cash aid can proceed without delay.

TBM also questioned the updating of the database simultaneous to the delivery of emergency cash relief. “We believe that no matter the exigency, the many documentary requirements being demanded from the beneficiaries must be waived for the time being and a simple identification process be made instead.

It further proposed that the “updating and correction of data in the 2015 Listahanan can be done after the cash payouts during quarantine where household members are just confined in their homes. This way, quality -security and accuracy -- of data gathering and validation is ensured and can proceed even faster.”

TBM also said the 18 million low income households estimated by the Department of Finance (DOF) who lost their sources of income due to Covid-19 to be “conservative considering that in Bicol region for example in the last five years since the last Listahanan updating (2015), all six provinces registered a big increase in their poor population, including what one local official called “new poor” after many Bicolanos suffered dislocation because of series of calamities that hit the region.”

It further proposed to the President and the IATF that a buffer fund be set up immediately to help cover the amelioration costs of poor households left out by the DSWD.

To avoid unnecessary cramming for data, TBM suggested that “immediately after the payouts, DSWD and Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) should work together with appropriate agencies on user-friendly self-generating tools – to upgrade data not only every five years but yearly to have a secured, reliable and unified database of the real poor households. In the long term, this should be done alongside drawing up meaningful poverty reduction or mitigation programs as a key component in participatory planning and good governance”

The TBM also expressed dismay that the culture of pamumulitika that persists in Bicol in particular in Camarines Sur is sidetracking the distribution of social assistance.

“Mas malapit sa corona, mas malapit sa gracia” is an oft repeated cliché. This is the twin problem of Covid-19 - a political virus, which has become a thorny and highly partisan issue among local officials,” the group said.

TBM called on the President and the IATF tp ensure that transparency and accountability should still remain in place even during the Covid-19 emergency. No politician, public or government official must be allowed to take advantage of the critical situation by laying personal claim to any relief good and cash aid through pasting political labels, personal or party names and pictures in every distribution package or program.

“This virus called “epal” should not be allowed to thrive during this national crisis. The President and the IATF should outrightly ban this practice and call the attention of these politicians and their followers who trumpet their patrons’ names to stop the use of public funds and programs in promoting the politicians’ personal name and their families. This has no place in a democracy especially so when millions of people worldwide are in dire need and the whole nation is under national emergency,” TBM said