QUARANTINE DIARIES: COVID-19 Crucible for Bangsamoro

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 04 May) — Early last year, the country saw the birth of a new, expanded autonomous regional government down south.

Officials of the 80-seat Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) took their oaths of office. The BTA is composed of diverse people from various backgrounds, and they took the helm of the region to shape the frameworks and policies needed for true autonomy in the area.

The BTA has been faced with challenges that are part of what has been dubbed as the ‘birthing pains’ of this autonomous region. Yet the BTA has always risen up to these challenges of laying the foundation for a stronger regional government within a parliamentary setup.

A year since its inception, the new regional government faces another threat: The global contagion that has killed thousands of people by the name of COVID-19.

As of this writing, the region has 11 confirmed cases. The province of Sulu recorded its first case on the last day of April, a day before the implementation of General Community Quarantine (GCQ)—a relatively more lenient version of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon island.

Although seven confirmed COVID-19 patients have already recovered, 258 individuals are still marked as “suspects.”

Activated in March to respond to the challenges brought about by the pandemic, the Bangsamoro Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 has been the instrument of the Bangsamoro Government to spearhead its efforts to prevent the spread of the disease in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The BTA has allotted a total of P155M to the five provinces, three cities, 116 municipalities, and 63 barangays in North Cotabato under its leadership. The budget is intended to intensify its efforts in addressing the spread of the disease.

The BARMM’s Ministry of Health said it has also allocated P20,000 a month to all its rural health units in the region to “augment the RHU’s daily operations.”

Meanwhile, the region’s Ministry of Public Works said that a new building is under construction inside the compound of Cotabato Sanitarium in the province of Maguindanao to better prepare if ever the health situation worsens for the region.

A total of 16,000 sacks of rice which were divided among the 80-member parliament was provided by the Office of the Chief Minister for each parliamentarian to distribute to their respective communities. Prior to the allocation of rice by the region’s chief minister, most of the members of the BTA have been conducting relief operations in their respective towns.

Before this, our group, the minority bloc of the BTA, reached out to over two thousand households all over the region to offer relief assistance and started procuring close to 1,000 sets of PPE for our medical front-liners.

Our group, led by lawyer Laisa Masuhud Alamia also proposed a regional economic response package in March to help the Bangsamoro people fight the COVID-19 pandemic in BARMM. The proposal, sent to the Office of the Chief Minister, combined a series of protective interventions and multiple measures for health, emergency relief, and aid, including social subsidies, livelihoods, and crisis recovery.

In the proposal, we pointed out several existing fund sources, in addition to the coffers of the Ministry of Health and the Quick Response Fund (QRF), which could be used to undertake emergency programs and protocols, while at the same time minimizing the economic disruption and negative impact of the efforts to resolve and contain the crisis.

“These funds can be used to craft programs, projects, and activities (PAPs) that can help the Bangsamoro community prevent, respond to, and recover from the impact of this public health emergency. The ministries tasked with implementation can then attribute certain funding requirements to these general PAPs, without the need of parliamentary approval,” according to the proposal.

Under this proposal, the Bangsamoro government’s medical response will be improved by unlocking the procurement of test kits, face masks, and medical equipment. It will also be made more responsive by setting up local quarantine and sanitation centers; and by providing meals and transportation support to health workers and volunteers. Our efforts will promote socio-economic welfare by giving the option to institute fiscal incentives for small business owners, as well as wage subsidies for struggling employers. They will also strengthen relief operations and provide financial assistance to families whose livelihoods are severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as our farmers, fisherfolk, contractual workers, and service industry workers.

The impact of COVID-19 has caught us all by surprise and no one was ready for it. In this instance, quick adaptation is key: the challenges are there, since the new regional government is also tasked with laying down the foundation for a functional bureaucracy, and this pandemic adds to those already daunting challenges because our people need us to provide considerable additional support during this health crisis.

How we rise to this occasion will make all the difference to the strength of the autonomous region we are building. We will rise as one, stronger, and better for having been tested in this pandemic crucible. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amir Mawallil is a Member of Parliament at the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao).