LGUs: Pillar of strength amid the pandemic
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF BLOOMBERG LOCAL governments stepped up to deliver basic needs like food and (inset) vaccine shots to their constituents.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the country two years ago, it left the impression that no country was safe from the deadly respiratory disease, whether one was a superpower or a so-called fourth-world country.
In the Philippines, the impact of Covid-19 has been most acutely felt at the local level. Thus, that is also where response and recovery efforts have been most critical.
Cities and municipalities have been at the forefront of combating the pandemic’s spread and impact.
As national governments implemented large-scale ‘blanket’ policies to control the pandemic, local government units had to consider granular policies as well as real-time interventions to address differences in local Covid-19 transmission due to the varying conditions in local communities.
Some policies in place — such as voluntary physical distancing, wearing of masks and face shields, mass testing, and school closures – were effective in one locality but not in another.
Local government units were also confronted with the economic, social, and fiscal impact of the crisis. While urban areas became hotspots of the Covid-19 pandemic, they had health facilities that were already well-placed, compared to less developed and deprived rural communities.
The Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams, or BHERTs, became pivotal, connecting community members to health facilities. These neighborhood-based teams formed the frontline of efforts to delay the spread of Covid-19 and contain the pandemic locally by communicating risks to residents, facilitating contact tracing and vaccination, and connecting communities with broader local health systems. No doubt, the response of local government units was crucial to containing the spread of Covid-19 and mitigating its impact.
The Philippine national government, through its Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, outlined different quarantine measures where each level had a corresponding degree of rigidity, from keeping only essential businesses open to allowing all establishments to operate at a certain capacity. Other measures also involved prohibiting individuals of a certain age bracket from going outside their homes.
The local government units – from municipalities and provinces – also adopted specific measures based on the extent of the pandemic in their locality, to keep the number of infections and mortality at bay while minimizing the economic impact of the pandemic.
Some LGUs demonstrated a remarkable response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the assistance of the national government of then President Rodrigo Duterte, these LGUs managed to control the spread of the virus by implementing traditional and innovative projects and programs.
The LGUs adopted and implemented methodical and practical protocols to ensure the safety of their constituents as well as the efficient delivery of services, providing for financial and non-financial assistance to their constituents. Most of them acted swiftly, effectively, and efficiently to combat the pandemic despite their limited resources.
To address the social and economic impact of the pandemic, some LGUs extended deadlines for the payment of local taxes, fees, and charges even before the enactment of Republic Act (RA) No. 1146950 and RA 1149451, which mandated the extension of statutory deadlines for the payment of local taxes, fees, and charges.
Some LGUs even went beyond the extension of deadlines by granting additional tax relief measures such as the condonation or waiver of certain taxes due, to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on property owners and the economic losses incurred by businesses. In addition, certain LGUs waived the interest, penalties, and surcharges incurred for non-payment of all local taxes, fees, charges, and fines.
Local government units also found alternatives to cash-based transaction payments for real property and business taxes and for business permit applications, among others. They developed electronic payments or e-payments to help maintain physical distancing and support the stay-at-home order imposed on the public. The move helped minimize the risk of transmitting the virus through physical currency and contact.
With the guidance of the national government, the LGUs adopted projects and programs on the distribution of food and other essential provisions within their respective jurisdictions, transportation and accommodations for medical frontliners, curfew and checkpoints, and the like. In addition, innovative solutions to adapt to the new normal, while ensuring the safety of their constituents, were also adopted and implemented, such as contact tracing applications, mobile market and pharmacy, computerization of online applications for local services, and other technology-based solutions that ensured the continuity of local services.
Other LGUs also devised programs that encouraged their communities to comply with and adhere to the policies of the Covid-19 Inter-Agency Task Force, to establish preparedness and ensure efficient local government response to prevent the further spread of the virus.
The local government units are the saving grace of the fight against Covid-19. Aside from the staple delivery of relief goods, contact tracing, testing, the provision of health and quarantine facilities, disinfection, information drives, and relevant local legislation addressing the public health crisis, some LGUs found unique solutions to particular local circumstances.
In Makati City, Mayor Abby Binay pushed the local government to embrace technology as a tool to safely and efficiently distribute different kinds of financial assistance, using the Makatizen Card and the Makatizen App.
Makati put other technology-oriented innovations in place, such as the use of a locally developed Covid-19 tracker, medical teleconsultations, online legal assistance, free Internet load for public school students, and laptops for teachers.
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, on the other hand, established the city’s Covid-19 Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan and Centralized COVID-19 Data Center. The LGU used these tools to monitor the pandemic situation in Zamboanga City, the regional center of Zamboanga Peninsula and the gateway to the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.
Initiatives of other LGUs included identifying the suitable modality of learning for every location, providing machines for the printing of modules, establishing partnerships with internet providers for better connection, and collaborating with local media for radio and television-based information dissemination.
In addition, LGUs, in partnership with field offices, provided training to teachers and parents on how to adapt to the new normal of education. These initiatives were conducted while everyone had to observe the required health protocols for Covid-19.
As of June 2021, local government units had spent P118.9 billion combined on coronavirus disease response measures, according to preliminary data gathered by the Bureau of Local Government Finance.
Of the total, P76.44 billion came from the LGUs’ own funds, and P35.44 billion came from the Bayanihan Grant under the 2020 national budget, in view of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act or Bayanihan 1 whose effectivity was extended up to last year.
The LGUs also utilized P4.93 billion of their unexpended cash balances of public funds held in trust that were transferred to the general fund of LGUs to support pandemic response efforts.
Another P2.14 billion spent by LGUs came from grants and donations, the BLGF said.
The data gathered by the BLGF covered the period from April 2020 to June 2021, with a 100-percent reporting compliance by all the provincial, city, and municipal treasurers of 1,715 LGUs.
Some LGUs in Region 9 such as Zamboanga City, Isabela City, and the Municipality of Kabasalan in Zamboanga Sibugay took to promoting good nutrition by including fresh vegetables and fish in their rations.
An LGU distributed vegetable seedlings, while another launched a Kadiwa on Wheels where farm produce was made readily accessible to constituents.
Another good practice adopted was the distribution of vegetable seedlings and assorted vegetable seeds to encourage backyard gardening during the quarantine. This was practiced by the City Agriculture Office of the City of Isabela, Basilan.
The LGU of Zamboanga City also launched its own Kadiwa on Wheels, which visited and served the different barangays of the city. It was a joint project of the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, National Food Authority, and City Agriculture Office of Zamboanga City. A container truck filled with fresh farm products, including vegetables, fruits, fresh and dried fish, and fresh cut flowers from local farmers, went around the municipalities and brought such produce closer to the homebound constituents.
In Quezon City, meanwhile, at the start of the pandemic, the city’s main tool for contact tracing was a pen, paper, and a cell phone. The pen and paper were used to log a person’s location and health status, while mobile phones allowed health authorities to call suspected cases. These traditional methods were time-consuming and labor-intensive. But now, thanks to the adoption of technology, when residents of this city in Metro Manila develop and report symptoms of COVID-19, public health authorities can respond much faster — a critically important aspect of a successful response to any crisis.
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