By Vanne Elaine Terrazola

The deletion of the the punitive provisions of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Republic Act No. 11469) will not dilute the government’s efforts to address the COVID-19 outbreak, Senator Franklin Drilon assured on Tuesday.

In a statement, he lauded the Senate’s move to repeal the penalties under the new COVID-19 measure that it is crafting.

The Senate has started its plenary deliberations on the proposed “Bayanihan to Recover as One” Act, or the Bayanihan 2, which seeks to extend the special powers granted to President Duterte under RA 11469, and give him an additional spending authority to continue implementing programs that will address the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic impacts.

The bill did not carry the Bayanihan Act’s provisions imposing penalties for “offenses” listed in the law.

“I thank the Senate Committee on Finance chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara for adopting my amendment to repeal Section 6 of the Bayanihan law given what we saw as serious cases of abuses and inequity in the implementation of the law,” Drilon said.

He said the removal of the punitive provisions “will avoid the notion that the Bayanihan Law is anti-poor because it is the poor and the vulnerable that are victims of the inequity in its implementation.”

“The poor are prejudiced in the implementation of RA 11469,” he added.

Drilon said the repeal “will not affect the intent and objectives of the law, which is a health measure more than anything else.”

Senators said they do not oppose the proposal, but some maintained that law enforcers should continue to go after violators of quarantine rules.

Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, in his interpellation of Senate Bill No. 1564 on Monday afternoon, reminded his colleagues that the non-inclusion of punitive provisions is “not tantamount to decriminalizing or condoning the acts committed by those who violate health protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The neophyte senator, who is a former police chief, said he just wants law enforcers to be “guided accordingly”.

Sen. Pia Cayetano, who sponsored the Bayanihan 1 in the Senate last March, also sought to ensure that quarantine violators are penalized to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Whether you are a believer that penalizing or criminalizing an act is an effective preventive measure, that’s up for debate. But the point is, we need to ensure that people understand that we quarantine people for a reason. And one way to do that is to show them that we’re serious about it and we put either a fine or a deprivation of liberty by way of imprisonment.It’s something that we have to consider,” Cayetano said.

Angara explained that RA 11469, being a “special law” could deny violators the right to avail of the defense that they acted innocently or without criminal intent because they were “forced” by the COVID-19 situation.

“Ginagawa nila ‘yon, nagbe-break sila ng quarantine kasi nahihirapan sila, naghahanap sila ng pagkain (They were breaking the quarantine rules because they were suffering, looking for food). And under the special law, they would not be able to avail of the defense of lack of criminal intent because that’s available under prosecutions under the Revised Penal Code but not under a special law,” said Angara.

Drilon broached the idea during the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing last Friday, noting “alarming” reports of abuses and discrimination in the implementation of RA 11649.

Sec. 6 of the law punishes certain offenses with imprisonment of two months or a fine of not less than P10,000 but not more than P1 million, or both, aside from the penalties provided in existing laws.

These include (1) LGU officials disobeying national government policies; (2) hospital owners who refuse to operate in accordance with the directive of the President; (3) hoarding, profiteering, price manipulation, product deceptions, cartels, etc.; (4) refusal to prioritize and accept essential contracts for materials and services; (5) refusal to provide grace periods to loan payments; (6) spread of fake news; and (7) failure to comply with reasonable limitations on the operation of certain transportation sector.

These acts are already punishable under existing laws, said Drilon and Angara.

Philippine National Police Chief General Archie Gamboa agreed with the proposal, telling the Senate panel that they have not been using the Bayanihan Act to arrest and charge violators.

Business groups had earlier called for a fair and impartial implementation of the Bayanihan law, particularly in apprehending those who violated the quarantine protocols.

In a joint statement over the weekend, eight business organizations in the country said: “Many of those arrested suffered detention, costs, humiliation, and inconveniences, and some endured unwarranted jail time when unopened courts or government offices, or even limited bank branches, could not process their bail in a timely manner.”

“We are therefore greatly disappointed, even appalled and dismayed, about news reports of public officials violating with impunity the Inter Agency Task Force (IATF) and Department of Health (DOH) protocols intended to protect public health,” they said.

Drilon thanked the business groups for their vigilance.