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COA: P447.6-Million DILG Funds For Contact Tracing, Medicines Unused

COA: P447.6-Million DILG Funds For Contact Tracing, Medicines Unused
A contact tracer profiles a resident of Ocampo Street in Barangay UP Campus for a swab test after a portion of the area was placed under special concern lockdown due to the increase in COVID-19 cases. Photo by Michael Varcas, The Philippine STAR

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) has been flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA) over its failure to utilize P447.6 million in COVID-19 funds intended for the hiring and training of contact tracers and procurement of medical equipment and medicines.

In its 2020 annual audit report on the DILG, the COA noted that out of P3.169 billion allotted to the department for COVID-19 response, 12.37% or P447.629 million remained unobligated as of yearend.

The bulk of unused funds amounting to P428.126 million come from the DILG’s allotment under Republic Act No.11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2) and P19.503 million from RA 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Bayanihan 1).

The COA specifically called out the DILG Central Office (CO) and the Regional Offices (ROs) of Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Region 2 (Cagayan Valley), Region 4-B (Mimaro-pa), Region 5 (Bicol), Region 8 (Eastern Visayas) and Region 11 (Davao) for a utilization rate of below 75% of their respective funds under Bayanihan 1.

“Although the total utilization rate (of Bayanihan 1) is fair, the following ROs including the Central Office have utilization rate of below 75%, which is considered low,” the COA said.

The audit body noted that the CO and the ROs of CAR, Region 5 and Region 2 have not even utilized a single centavo of their allocated funds for the purchase of medical equipment, drugs and medicines under Bayanihan 1, amounting to P1.5 million, P550,000, P100,000 and P550,000, respectively.

As for the received funds under Bayanihan 2, the audit body again faulted the Central Office for having the lowest utilization rate of 47.43%, followed by NCR with 74.07%.

The audit body said the CO specifically failed to utilize P43.641 million allocated for the procurement of drugs, medicines and other supplies while NCR failed to utilize P61.517 million in-tended for general services expenses in connection with its pandemic response.

The COA said the CO and seven other ROs – CAR, Regions 1, 2, 4-B, 6, 9, 12 – also failed to utilize a total of P29.256 million intended for the hiring, training, monitoring, travel and operational expenses of contact tracers.

“Based on the accomplishment report submitted by DILG, initial target of at least 50,000 contact tracers was attained as they have hired a total of 50,885 all throughout the country. How-ever, allotment released for (Bayanihan 2) was not only intended for hiring of contact tracers but also for other related expenses,” COA said.

“We recommended that [DILG] Management submit an explanation stating the reasons for its inability to utilize in full the COVID-19 allotments and see to it that the remaining unob-ligated allotments are utilized in accordance with intended purposes/activities by June 30, 2021, to avoid its reversion to the Unappropriated Surplus of the General Fund,” it added.

The Bayanihan 2 law, however, lapsed on June 30 as Congress no longer extended its effectivity. This means that any unutilized amount under the law must be reverted to the national treasury until another legislation is enacted.

P19 billion available

The government should use the P19 billion fund lodged in the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to finance the hiring of additional manpower for contact tracing as COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly because of the more infectious Delta variant, Sen. Joel Villanueva said Wednesday.

Villanueva pointed out the “Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged o Displaced Workers” (TUPAD) program ­– an emergency employment program – can be used to deploy a “Delta Force” that will assist in tracing the contacts and travel histories of people found positive for COVID-19.

“The TUPAD program can be utilized to identify those who came in contact with those infected by the virus, where they came from and where they could have infected others,” said Villanueva, who chairs the Senate labor committee.

“Now that the Delta variant is in the country, our contact tracers must be like a ‘Delta force soldier-frontliner.’ We need all the help we can get to stop a surge from overrunning our frontlines,” he said in Filipino, referring to the moniker of an elite US Army special forces unit.

Under the current year’s national budget, TUPAD is appropriated P19 billion together with the Government Internship Program, an item Villanueva proposed and defended during last year’s debates on the 2021 general appropriations bill.

The program extends emergency employment for displaced workers, underemployed and seasonal workers in a community.

They will be paid short-term for work in social, economic, infrastructure and environment projects in their own communities.

 He said he made sure that TUPAD’s funding of P6 billion in 2020 was raised by over threefold or to P19 billion.

“I believe this fund can be tapped to hire more contact tracers. Contact tracing is very much applicable for the use of the fund,” Villanueva added.

More testing

Activist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) has asked the government to triple the daily COVID testing output, saying that it is crucial to determine the actual spread of the coronavirus in order to stem community transmission.

“It is imperative that mass testing be conducted during the period that people are staying put and not moving. The ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) will be wasted if mass testing will not be conducted to determine the actual spread of COVID-19 and to lower the positivity rate,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said in a statement.

Bayan lamented that the government’s testing output has dwindled to 50,000 per day. The group said this is not enough, considering that the nationwide positivity rate is around 17 per-cent, while some areas are even posting a positivity rate of more than 20%.

“If testing is not ramped up as positivity rate remains high, there will be thousands of COVID cases that will not be detected, thus increasing transmission in communities,” Reyes said.

Vice President Leni Robredo also urged the government on Wednesday to improve other pandemic response measures to avoid having to impose lockdowns in the future.

Saying a lockdown is only stopgap measure against an increase in COVID-19 cases, Robredo said the implementation of ECQ will not be effective if the implementation of other measures will remain the same.

“For example, our testing is only at 50,000 per day – It has to reach at least 120,000 in order for us to really identify the areas where we should focus on,” she said in Filipino.

“Our contact tracing is still confusing. There are so many (mobile applications) so we have a lot of database. We should unify that,” she added.

Robredo also stressed the need to prepare hospitals in case of a surge, citing the experience of COVID-19 hotspots earlier this year.

“We should help hospitals hire medical personnel. We have to make sure that they have access to medicine and oxygen and watch out for those who take advantage by increasing prices,” she said.

“Most importantly, the vaccination. It has to reach 750,000 per day so we can immediately reach herd immunity,” the Vice President added.

She also underscored the need to immediately provide support to those who will be affected by the imposition of strict quarantine measures.

The government, she said, should ensure the immediate distribution of the promised financial assistance to the poorest families, as well as the support to small businesses.

“We can do all of these to achieve the objective for this to be our last lockdown,” she said. “As always, we are willing to help in any way we can to attain out goal of finally overcoming this pandemic.” – With Janvic Mateo, Paolo Romero