Hot in the news is the announcement from the “House of Representatives that it will conduct an inquiry anytime this week on the Department of Health’s (DOH) poor handling of P67.32 billion worth of COVID-19 funds based on a Commission on Audit (COA) report.” “Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said on Sunday that the House had invited the COA to brief lawmakers on the DOH’s “deficiencies” in the use of its pandemic response funds,” press reports said.
The move from Congress could not have come at a better time as we are in the midst of a Metro Manila lockdown (yet again). For the third time in a little over a year, this ECQ has once again shuttered thousands of stores and businesses and impacted the lives of millions in this vast metropolis who struggle to keep body and soul together. And yet, here we are, the Health department people seemingly fumbling the ball in providing our people with the help that they need in the most efficient and effective way possible.
The Congressional probers may also want to focus their attention on the plight of the country’s lowly jeepney drivers and transportation workers. They have also been given the short end of the proverbial stick—Bayanihan 1 and 2 assistance passed by Congress due to negligence and omission by the responsible people or agency of government entrusted with their welfare. In another press report, “Sen. Nancy Binay slammed the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) and Department of Transportation for being “invisible” in prioritizing assistance for drivers amid the ongoing pandemic.
She called the agencies the “biggest job stranglers” and pleaded to give drivers “even a little dignity.” The good Senator cited the Commission on Audit which flagged the LTFRB’s utilization of only P59 million out of its P5.58 billion fund for the Service Contracting Program for displaced drivers. Only around 29,000 of the target 60,000 participants were registered in the program as of 2020.
In a previous column, I cited Mody Floranda, president of the Manila-based Piston transport group who said that, “Opening malls, factories and offices are useless if people can’t move around… cut off from their main source of livelihood, some of the 600,000 or so jeepney drivers nationwide are strapped for cash … leaving some to beg for money.” In what could be an unjust treatment for our jeepney drivers, operators and related transportation businesses, having the bulk of the Service Contracting Program kept in bank accounts (thereby accumulating interest) instead of using it for its intended purposes. May we then make a public plea to those responsible for the money that was allocated primarily for our drivers, operators and transport services to heed the call of the hour and provide some succor to our people in their time of need.
Which brings me to a recent story which should tug at the hearts of those who sympathize with our transportation workers and their families. Vocal members of the entertainment sector, actors Agot Isidro and Enchong Dee were reported to have called out congresswoman Claudine “Dendee” Bautista for having a “lavish” wedding ceremony in an exclusive resort amid the COVID-19 pandemic and plight of displaced drivers. Bautista is the party-list representative of Drivers United for Mass Progress and Equal Rights party list (DUMPER). Congresswoman Bautista who authored a House of Representatives bill: “An Act Declaring May 8th of Each Year As a Special Working Holiday All Over the Country to Honor Our Public Transportation Drivers” appears from these accusations as anything but—and far from acting as a true representative of our transport workers.
Agot and Dee commented that the money spent for the wedding could have fed many displaced drivers. “That gown alone (by Michael Cinco) can feed [hundreds] of families of displaced drivers. And you’re representing which sector again, Cong. Claudine Bautista?” the actress asked Bautista through her Twitter page.
Which brings me to the hard truth that in these times of crisis and people suffering in droves, any show of ostentation would be unethical if not downright crass. Even former US President Barak Obama got criticized for his lavish 60th birthday bash recently. Maureen Dowd writing for the highly respected New York Times has this withering quote: “I think the nouveaux riches Obamas are seriously tone-deaf,” said the authority on opulence, André Leon Talley. “We all love Beyoncé. But people have so many things to worry about with Covid, voting rights, climate warming. People are afraid of being evicted from their homes. And the Obamas are in Marie Antoinette, tacky, let-them-eat-cake mode. They need to remember their humble roots.” And for the DOH, DOTr and Congresswoman Bautista, when will you hear and heed, the people’s call?