‘Pandemic flexibility’ bill pushed by Neda


IF Filipinos will learn to live with the Covid-19 virus and survive future pandemics, the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) is proposing the enactment of a pandemic flexibility bill that will not only create a medical reserve corps but also provide the country financial flexibility in times of health emergencies.

This proposal is part of Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua’s 10-point agenda to accelerate and sustain economic recovery, which he shared at a recent virtual forum of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM).

Chua said the pandemic flexibility bill aims to strengthen government institutions to allow them to respond to health emergencies and expedite the rollout of health and social protection measures.

“Our concern right now is the number of available health care workers. So one example is [the creation of] an emergency or medical reserve corps similar to other countries. We can immediately tap these health care temporary workers to fill in the gap,” Chua explained.

The pandemic flexibility bill would be similar to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) law. However, the law was focused on natural disasters and did not cover pandemics.

The NDRRMC law does not provide enough financing for national public health emergencies as well as data privacy relaxation; electronic transactions; local and national government policy alignment; and health preparedness.

The creation of a medical reserve corps will be placed under health preparedness while privacy concerns surrounding contact tracing will be covered in the proposed bill.

“What the NDRRMC law lacks, the pandemic flexibility bill will complement,” Chua said. “Of course, the benefit would be to strengthen our institutional capacity and to respond to future health emergencies and to roll out the necessary health and social protection measures including the National ID which is a priority.”

Apart from this, Chua’s 10-point agenda includes changing the metrics used in decision making, taking into consideration that the pandemic is soon going to be endemic.

This means, the Neda chief explained, that instead of monitoring total cases, total deaths, and total vaccinated individuals, the government will monitor total severe or critical cases or hospitalization; case fatality ratios; and total vaccinated Filipinos.

This, Chua said, will reduce the need to raise alert levels when cases increase; facilitate the shift in the mindset of people to “live with the virus;” and focus on the number of severe cases and fatality ratio to emphasize the importance of vaccination.

“You know, it’s okay if there are 20,000 cases but if 95 percent are mild, then we may be reacting too much. That is really what I’m trying to say,” Chua said.

Jabs for children

The agenda also includes efforts to expand vaccination to children as young as three years old as soon as permits are secured and the emergency use authorizations of vaccines are issued, and to fast-track vaccination through schools.

Chua added that the government also stands ready to provide booster shots to the majority of Filipinos until 2023. However, once the vaccines become commercially available, he hoped the government could seek help from the private sector to step in and share a portion of the costs.

The 10-point agenda includes the removal of restrictions and requirements for domestic travel, specifically vaccinated travelers. He said this means standardizing travel regulations across LGUs.

Chua shared his recent experience traveling over 1,300 kilometers in five days in Southern Philippines to visit Neda regional offices in Davao, Koronadal, Butuan, Cagayan de Oro and Pagadian.

In order to do this, Chua needed to secure seven different passes for entry. He said some passes that required coordination with LGUs take at least 24 hours to get approved.

The Neda chief thinks requirements must be limited to only vaccination cards or RT-PCR for the unvaccinated; and one inter-scannable QR code for contact tracing.

“Our recommendation is to do away with all these and to just focus on vaccination certificates and interscannable QR code and this is being used already. If you have had a chance to travel to Boracay for instance, this is being done,” Chua said. “We estimate we can easily recover if we safely open the travel for domestic purposes.”

For international travel, Chua said the recommendation is to forego quarantine for vaccinated passengers from green- and yellow-listed countries and remove flight or passenger daily quota. However, he said, this may have to be reviewed given the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron.

Other recommendations include allowing greater mobility. Chua said this means expanding the transportation capacity in order to prevent crowding in many train and bus stations.

As buses are only allowed a 50-percent capacity, many commuters, especially in the Central Business Districts (CBDs), end up stranded in stations, creating crowds that could lead to higher transmission of the virus.

The 10-point agenda also includes those that seek to improve the country’s healthcare capacity; reopen schools; vie for digital transformation; and make medium-term preparations for pandemic resilience through a pandemic playbook.

The pandemic playbook aims to take stock of all lessons learned; prevent pandemics and other health risks by promoting healthy lifestyles; and mitigate the impact of future pandemics by strengthening healthcare and social protection systems.

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