Duterte to call for special session of Congress for COVID-19 funding

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 19) — President Rodrigo Duterte will call for a special session of Congress, his longtime aide Senator Christopher “Bong” Go and Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said Thursday.

Go said he has discussed this with Sotto and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, both of whom reportedly said they are willing to hold a special session on Saturday or Monday.

“The priority is to ensure that additional funds can be allocated for immediate healthcare needs and for much-needed financial and food assistance to Filipinos, particularly the vulnerable sectors, daily wage earners and informal economy workers affected by the strict quarantine measures being imposed,” Go said.

This announcement came after more senators expressed their desire for a special session of Congress to approve additional funding for the government’s response to COVID-19.

Sotto said most senators agree with his suggestion for Congress to hold a special session to approve a budget for assistance to the poor while Luzon is on lockdown.

He said he has spoken with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and an unnamed “high-level economist” about this.

He added that he wants Congress to pass a daily food allowance for poor families in Luzon, like a ₱300 daily allotment per indigent family in Metro Manila, which he said will amount to ₱27 billion.

Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, meanwhile wants a monthly subsidy for senior citizens during the COVID-19 crisis.

Deputy Speaker and Antique Rep. Loren Legarda said most of the ₱56.4-billion allotted for the government’s unconditional cash transfer program is unused and can be rechanneled to fund aid for the poor.

Senator Grace Poe said the additional budget can also be used to buy test kits, find a cure COVID-19 and hire health workers and personnel.

Go said he will recommend the holding of a special session if the government’s stimulus package and additional funding from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and contingency funds are insufficient.

Sa ngayon, may sapat naman po tayong pondo. Pero hindi po tayo dapat maging kampante dahil evolving ang problema. Isipin din natin what happens in the coming days, what happens after the quarantine and let us think of all possible scenarios,” Go said in a statement.

[Translation: For now, there are enough funds. But we shouldn’t be complacent because the problem is evolving. Let’s think of what happens in the coming days, what happens after the quarantine and let us think of all possible scenarios.]

Cayetano said the House is ready to hold a special session if Duterte calls for it.

Aside from passing additional funding for the government’s COVID-19 response, Cayetano also wants to prioritize the passage of a measure that will give the government more leeway in using funds to aid people.

The Senate minority had earlier called for a special session to pass a supplemental budget for the government’s response to COVID-19, including assistance to Filipino households, workers and businesses.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez also called for a special session for this purpose which would be held virtually to avoid a mass gathering which could further spread the disease.

But Sotto said Congress can still hold a special session in person, although with a skeletal workforce.

“We do not need a full staff in a special session. As long as there are recorders and a limited number of people to operate recorders, I suppose that will be enough. We will work on only one issue to be submitted by the Palace,” he said.

Cayetano, meanwhile, said the House can also adopt rules to allow for online voting and other social distancing measures so that even House members who are on self-quarantine can participate. Poe also pushed for a special session through teleconferencing.

Under the Constitution, the president may call for a special session of Congress at any time.

The House Committee on Appropriations last week approved a ₱1.65-billion supplemental budget to address the issues brought by the infectious disease pandemic. This is lower than the Health Department's proposed amount of ₱2.35 billion to procure personal protective equipment for about 5,000 health workers.

The budget, however, failed to reach the plenary before Congress adjourned for the lawmakers' seven-week Lenten break.

COVID-19 has infected 202 people in the Philippines, with 17 of them dying because of the disease caused by a virus called SARS CoV-2. Seven of those who had been infected have recovered.

Globally, over 200,000 have been infected and 8,810 have died because of the viral disease. Over 84,000 have recovered.

The disease is spread through small droplets from the nose or mouth when people infected with the virus cough or sneeze.

To prevent infection, authorities are urging people to practice regular hand washing, cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and avoid close contact with those who show respiratory symptoms.

Commonly reported COVID-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Those with severe and critical symptoms should call the Health Department at (02) 8-651-7800 local 1149-1150.

CNN Philippines’ Joyce Ilas, Xianne Arcangel and Xave Gregorio contributed to this report.