Philippine Congress approves national emergency declaration

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine Congress on Tuesday approved a bill declaring a national emergency and authorizing the president to launch a massive aid program for 18 million families and tap private hospitals and ships in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

President Rodrigo Duterte can reapportion the executive department’s budget under the legislation, which will also punish people disobeying quarantine orders and spreading “false information” about the outbreak, legislators said. The state of national emergency will last for three months but can be extended by Congress.

The Senate and the House of Representatives, which are dominated by Duterte’s allies, both held emergency sessions Monday and worked beyond midnight to deliberate the bill, with most lawmakers participating online as a health precaution. Duterte is expected to sign the bill into law soon.

Duterte has already locked down the main northern island of Luzon, home to more than 50 million people, by restricting travel to and from the region, which includes Manila, the capital. Most residents have been ordered to stay home and work and classes have been suspended under the monthlong containment.

Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the bill carries safeguards against potential abuse and blocked a proposal that the president be able to take over private companies if the crisis worsens.

The bill reflects the widespread call “for mass testing, support to front-liners and cash transfers to the vulnerable,” Pangilinan said.

Amnesty International said the government should ensure that all responses to the outbreak comply with international human rights law and address the vulnerability of the poor.

“The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbates social inequalities,” the group’s Philippine director, Butch Olano, said. “Actions from the government should aim to reduce or eliminate these inequalities, including to ensure access to necessary health care and preventative goods and services especially for people living in poverty.”

Philippine officials reported Tuesday a total of 552 cases of the virus in the country, with 35 deaths. Twenty patients have recovered.