POSTSCRIPT / March 12, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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POGOs are favored over COVID victims?

HAVING missed President Duterte’s public appearances, we rushed to watch his televised presscon Tuesday evening expecting to see a reinvigorated leader explain how he would steer the country through the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis scaring the world.

But we were disappointed to see him barely addressing the basic concerns on the emergency. He sounded more intense in defending the Chinese involved in Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) that had been linked to a variety of organized crimes.

We were waiting for him to explain, for instance, what an ordinary Filipino should do, or expect the government to do for him if he had viral symptoms. Many people skip seeing a doctor or seeking hospitalization because they are scared of the expenses.

This hesitation, especially among the poor who are the most vulnerable, can help explain why the initial count of COVID-19 cases was low despite the country’s open doors and the sad state of public health.

The spotty status reports of the health department left the impression that the Duterte administration was careful not to embarrass China, where the outbreak was reported to have begun in December.

Duterte’s rambling remarks did not show any sense of urgency. He had no action plan. Weeks ago, neighboring Taiwan, whose population is just a quarter of that of the Philippines, already had a list of 124 actions including the production of 44 million masks and widespread testing.

Duterte failed to explain why until this late date, the government does not have enough test kits and other diagnostic and treatment tools. There was a hint that aside from lack of planning there was lack of funds and lack of competence at the highest level.

But on several occasions, Duterte had assured the public not to worry because there was money. Many times, however, his own finance team said they were going to borrow the money needed.

Why don’t they tap first the confidential and intelligence funds of the President amounting to a mind-boggling P4.5 billion, which is even bigger than the combined intelligence budgets of the armed forces and the national police? Where is Duterte using his intelligence funds?

The lack of medical resources — such as testing kits — is widely seen as the reason for the “under-reporting” of coronavirus disease cases in the Philippines. The health department itself has been forced to admit this to explain its slow reaction to the emergency.

The skewed priority of the administration has been exposed by the Congress’ chopping off P10 billion from the current year’s budget of the health department.

If Malacañang and the Congress cannot realign huge sums fast enough, can they produce stop-gap funding from the estimated P50-billion taxes due from the Chinese-managed POGOs despite Duterte’s spiritedly defending them?

It is time Duterte made clear where his priorities and loyalty lie – between his own countrymen and his Chinese friends and benefactors.

• Duterte defends Chinese-managed POGOs

DEFENDING Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) from accusations that they are being used for committing a wide range of crimes and should be banned, President Duterte said Tuesday:

“Under my oath of office as President of the Republic, as elected by you, ‘yang POGO na ‘yan, malinis ‘yan (those POGOs are clean). Laro lang ‘yan para sa kabila (It’s just a game for the other side) but it employs something like 20,000 in Manila.

“Why? Because it gives us P2 billion a month. Kaya sabi ko para muna (That’s why I said let’s pause first).”

The President said in the presscon that every centavo due from POGOs, including taxes estimated at P50 billion in 2019, has been accounted for.

The Senate blue ribbon committee chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon has been investigating reports that POGOs were involved in such crimes as sex trafficking, corruption, money laundering, and the forging of documents.

The operation of POGOs has emerged as one of the issues where known allies of Duterte, including some senators, have disagreed with the President.

Gordon has expressed alarm that Duterte was being misled by his own people, especially as regards the alleged use of POGOs licensed by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. for money laundering.

The senator told reporters: “I wish the President wouldn’t make remarks like that especially since a co-equal branch of government is investigating a very, very serious situation where hundreds of millions of dollars are coming into our country.

“I think he’s being misled. Mr. President, you are being misled by your people. You better check, you’re a lawyer as well, most respectfully.”

Duterte said Monday he had examined some bank deposits and found no proof of money laundering activities involving POGOs. We think it is not the President to decide the guilt or innocence of POGO operators.

The Anti-Money Laundering Council told senators in a hearing last week that P14 billion of the P54 billion in transactions by POGOs from 2017 to 2019 were linked to “suspicious activities.”

Gordon addressed Duterte: “Mr. President, kung titignan niyo, daan-daang milyon, e unang-una napakadelikado niyan para sa bansa, and definitely the Senate is four-square on this investigation because nakikita nila talaga na bulto-bulto.”

AMLC Executive Director Mel Racela submitted records to the Gordon panel showing that around P138 million in POGO transactions had been linked to drug trafficking.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 12, 2020)

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