Officials of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) on Wednesday recalled the challenges in sourcing personal protective equipment sets at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, as President Rodrigo Duterte again came to their defense amid a Senate probe on overpriced face masks and other PPEs.
Duterte also reiterated that lawmakers should stop politicking, especially members of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, “in aid of elections” next year by nitpicking about his administration’s COVID-19 response efforts.
In his taped message aired Wednesday, the President renewed his call for senators to stop dictating on his administration, especially the Department of Health (DOH) led by Secretary Francisco Duque III.
But Senator Richard Gordon said Duque may still face charges over the purchasing issues of the DOH and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management, saying he was liable for anti-graft charges.
State auditors have flagged the DOH over several deficiencies in its use of P67.32 billion in COVID-19 funds, mainly caused by non-compliance with laws, rules, and regulations.
Gordon also chairs the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, which is looking into an P8.6-billion contract for the procurement of face masks, face shields, and PPEs awarded by the DBM-PS to Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp.
Amid issues of alleged overpriced face masks and other PPEs bought by the government in March and April 2020, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said the country had no local sources of face masks and PPE sets when COVID-19 struck in the first quarter of 2020.
Lopez said when demand for face masks started to increase in early 2020 due to the Taal Volcano eruption and the COVID-19 outbreak, only Bataan-based Medtecs International Corp. Ltd. was manufacturing medical-grade face masks in the country.
However, Medtecs’ output is for exports, said Lopez, a member of the IATF. He said due to the huge demand for PPEs at that time while supply was limited, prices of face masks and PPEs were high and unstable.
During that time, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) called on local manufacturers to produce the much needed medical-grade face masks.
The Confederation of Wearable Exporters of the Philippines (Conwep) and other manufacturing companies, including producers in the electronics industry, then shifted a portion of their operation into face mask making.
“They heeded the call of the government to start local production (of face masks),” Lopez said.
But it was not also easy for these companies to start face mask production, as they had to import new machines and other technologies as well as the raw materials for making PPE sets.
“Starting it that time was challenging because even the fabric used to produce face masks were expensive, and there was also (a) shortage,” Lopez said in Filipino. “Out of nothing, they have to produce.”
He added EMS Group, an electronics firm that shifted to face masks production, was one of the companies that initially produced PPEs for the local market.
Lopez said EMS produced during the latter part of May 2020 and joined the government bidding and supplied to the PS-DBM by June.
The DTI chief said with the limited production capacity of the local manufacturers, it was challenging for them to supply the government’s face mask requirement in huge volume.
“During those times, many must have forgotten our situation in March, April, May last year,” National Task Force Against COVID-19 deputy chief implementer Vivencio Dizon said in Filipino. “The national government had a hard time finding the necessary supply (of PPE sets) especially for our healthcare workers.”
Dizon added the procured face masks and other PPEs during the COVID-19 outbreak last year were given for free to healthcare front-liners.
Duterte, meanwhile, said the Senate committee conducting a series of hearings on the purchase of COVID-19 emergency supplies were not searching for truth but were finding fault with him and his administration.
“Now, honestly, what the Blue Ribbon Committee is doing to my administration, it’s really politicking,” he said, also expressing dismay that some senators are exhausting all efforts to sow public hatred against him.
“I don’t know, perhaps, they have no achievements to show off, that’s why they want people to get mad at me,” he said. “I will not be there for the longest time but I’m telling you, I adhered to my oath of office.”
Duterte said the Senate hearing was conducted “in aid of election.”
“Now that the elections are coming near, nagging questions and accusations, they are all there,” he said. “So, what is this? In aid of election or legislation?”
The President said that some senators were not allowing their resource persons to give their full explanation.
“You cannot tell the truth in the Senate. You know why? Because they would not allow you to complete your answer. After you give your explanation, they would interrupt you,” he said.
Duterte maintained there are no irregularities in the purchase of COVID-19 medical supplies.
“You don’t understand me. There is no corruption. I am telling you that there is no corruption,” he said.
Duterte said lawmakers can ask the Commission on Audit (COA) to prove there is nothing wrong with the procurement of emergency supplies amid the prevailing pandemic.
“There is no corruption in the government’s procurement. You can ask COA at this early,” he said.
On Tuesday, COA chief Michael Aguinaldo told senators that the Office of the President adhered to the procurement rules when it signed contracts for the purchase of COVID-19 medical supplies and ensured accountability.
Duterte also defended Duque once more.
“You know, when you give funds to a department, it is programmed by the department. Do not run the department as if it is also an office of the Senate. Do not dictate. Let Duque run that. Let him be. Let him make the program and spend the money,” he said.
The President said it is inappropriate to criticize Duque amid the pandemic, especially since the health chief is doing his best to fight COVID-19.
“Let him complete his work. At the end of the day, if he fails to do his job, then that is the time for reckoning, but not before completing the programs of his department in pursuant to his work as secretary,” he said.
Gordon, however, said Duque is liable for anti-graft “right away.”
“You know, even if you are negligent, you are still liable because you cause damage to the Filipino people in such a very bad situation and all these guys involved,” he said.
“Talagang super plunder because, really, it shows planned plunder,” the senator added, noting this was the reason why Duterte’s remarks against COA and the Senate surprised him.
Gordon also said the President is displaying a false sense of leadership as he defends Chinese businessman Michael Yang, a former presidential adviser, despite Duterte’s promise to remove corruption.
“Covering his tracks, trying to cover his people, because people are loyal to their people. It’s a false sense of leadership,” he said.
“To me, there is an absence of leadership. He’s not very hands-on. He has meetings at night and when he has meetings at night, he flays away at everybody and that’s fine. But if you promised something, you should be the first to do it,” Gordon added.
The senator said Duterte has a habit of “leaning over backward” for his people.
“You know, I don’t know why that is… is it a sense of macho, is it a false sense of pride?” he said.
In an interview on ANC, Gordon said Warren Liong, the appointed Overall Deputy Ombudsman, had links to former PS-DBM chief Christopher Lao and Duterte.
Pharmally, a small firm, had a paid-up capital of around P625,000 but was able to secure billions worth of government contracts involving pandemic supplies when Lao was still head of the DBM-PS.
“See, that’s why it’s compromised. Because the person (Duterte) put with Lao is also from Davao (the President’s hometown). This appointment of yours for Mindanao, Liong, he and Lao both went to Ateneo, to Law school,” Gordon said.