The chapel of Quezon City General Hospital was converted into a COVID-19 intensive care unit to handle severe cases amid the Delta-driven surge in August. -- Photo by Michael Varcas, The Philippine Star

THE National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) wants a pandemic funding flexibility law that will help the government respond more quickly to public health crises.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua said the proposed law would be similar to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act or Republic Act No. 10121, which was designed to protect the pop-ulation from natural disasters.

The law provided for the creation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

“We have the NDRRMC law. This is for natural disasters. That is able to help, and if we have similar bill for the pandemic then it will help us prepare for future health emergencies. What the NDRRMC law lacks, the pandemic flexibility bill will complement. For instance, providing budget and financial flexibility,” he said at a webinar on Wednesday.

But Mr. Chua said the existing law does not provide enough funds and financing flexibility for national public health emergencies.

“If we have a similar bill for the pandemic, then it will help us prepare for future health emergencies,” he said.

He said the proposed measure should relax data privacy rules in the interest of public safety.

Electronic government transactions should be allowed, from procurement to audit report submissions, he said, adding that national and local policies should be aligned during health crises.

“We (should) have better preparedness of healthcare facilities, workers, equipment, and materials,” Mr. Chua said.

“Our concern right now is the number of available healthcare workers, so one example is an emergency or medical reserve corps similar to other countries, where we can immediately tap these healthcare temporary workers to fill in the gap.”

He said his proposal would strengthen the government’s ability to respond to future health emergencies and roll out health and social protection measures.

The pandemic funding flexibility bill is part of Mr. Chua’s 10-point policy proposal aimed at speeding up and sustaining economic recovery from the effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

In addition to the pandemic flexibility bill, he said the country should change its metrics in assessing COVID-19 cases, shifting from counting the total number of cases to the total number of severe or critical cases.

NEDA last month presented a government pandemic scorecard after the Philippines posted poor scores in global indices measuring its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as vaccinations in the country lagged.

The Philippines remained in last place out of 53 countries measured in the November edition of the Bloomberg Covid Resilience ranking. Mr. Chua said the country should expand its vaccination rate, expanding access to the COVID-19 jabs to children.

Under 34% of the Philippine population has been fully vaccinated, data from the Johns Hopkins University tracker showed. The Philippines recorded 564 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, and has a total active case count of 15,188.

Mr. Chua said that the country’s economy must be further reopened, removing age-based restrictions and containing local case spikes through localized lockdowns.

Further reopening the economy would help the Philippines achieve its growth targets and reduce unemployment and poverty rates, he said.

Third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) went up by an annual 7.1%, slower than the revised 12% growth in the second quarter after the government placed strict restrictions in Metro Manila to curb the Delta-driven surge in COVID-19 cases. Year-to-date economic growth is at 4.9%, within the government’s 4-5% GDP growth target.

Mr. Chua added that the Philippines should reopen schools, standardize travel regulations, align international travel requirements with global policies, speed up digital transformation, and use the lessons learned from this pandemic to make the country more resilient against future health crises.

“We have a load of experience, domestic and internationally, so we have to put them together in a pandemic playbook,” he said. — Jenina P. Ibañez