An Opaque ‘Better Normal’

Co-authored with Jayvy Gamboa

The phrase “new normal” has became the talk of the world.

In hopes of molding this “new normal,” or “better normal” as some would like to call it, the House of Representatives adopted House Bill No. 6864 or the Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities, and Public Spaces Act of 2020 last August 10, 2020, with 242 affirmative votes. The Senate has yet to discuss its counterpart bill. 

The Better Normal Bill defines “better normal” as “transformative behaviors and interventions informed by science, that address the underlying vulnerabilities of people and communities that the epidemic or pandemic has highlighted and fosters a just and equitable transition to a climate-resilient, inclusive, and sustainable future.”

Assessing the standards for a ‘better normal’

The main part of the bill is Section 6 (Standards for Better Normal), which enumerates guidelines on a range of social activities.

On general health and safety measures (A. Universal and Mandatory Health and Safety Measures), the public shall be required to wear face masks (and other variants) or face shields “whenever they are in the workplace, public places, and communities,” provided that the government will implement a free distribution of masks. Hand-washing facilities, temperature reading, and physical distancing of 1 meter are to be implemented by establishment owners as well. It also says that a nationwide testing drive with a very minimal rate of testing – 1% of the province’s or city’s population – shall be done.

On spaces (B. Management of Spaces), public gatherings, which are not defined in the bill, shall be prohibited subject to exceptions in the IRR, while privately-organized gatherings in privately-managed spaces are allowed provided that they comply with the mandatory health and safety measures enumerated in A. From a human rights perspective, this is possibly dangerous due to the vagueness of permissible and prohibited gatherings.

On public transportation (C. Management of Public Transportation), aside from implementing the mandatory health measures in terminals, PUVs, and TNVS, it is hopeful to see that “the government shall shoulder the costs of mandatory COVID-19 testing in the public transportation sector.” Programs for jeepneys and public buses shall also be crafted “without requiring them to commit to the government’s [PUV] modernization program.” LGUs and DPWH will also be tasked to create green lanes “for personal mobility devices such as bicycles, e-bicycles, scooters, and similar micromobile devices.”

However, the operation of motorcycle taxis, on which thousands of Filipinos depend for livelihood and transportation, shall still be prohibited. It is also alarming that in airports, ports, harbors, and similar facilities, the bill says that only mandatory conduct of rapid testing – a COVID-19 test that has been flagged by WHO and DOH for being unreliable – shall be done for arriving and departing passengers.

On schools (D. Better Normal for Schools and Educational Institutions), besides the grant of authority to DepEd and CHED “to determine the start of the academic year 2020 to 2021,” we think that this part of the bill is a mere rehash of the policies already adopted by DepEd and CHED to adapt to the pandemic. Also, it seems that it is already too late for the upcoming school year with some schools already starting their classes.

On workplaces (F. Better Normal for Private Commercial and Industrial Workplaces), “all private commercial, industrial, and other forms of businesses shall be required to submit a Management Plan to the LGU,” which contains the business’ plan to comply with the mandatory health measures stated in the bill, and to implement such plans. Some safeguards for labor include a directive that all businesses “shall shoulder all expenditures in complying with the [bill], and such expenditures shall not in any way be charged to the employees.” Moreover, “being late or being absent for work due to heavy traffic, unavailability of public transport or of shuttle or transportation service due to reasons related to the implementation of the [bill] shall not be a cause for disciplinary action against, or termination of, the employees.”

On governance (G. Better Normal Governance Measures), e-governance is the way to go. Transactions shall include online payment systems, appointment-based transactions, electronic business permits, and licensing systems. Electronic payment facilities shall also be used in collecting taxes, fees, tolls, imposts, and other revenue. While the use of ICT in government services is laudable, most Filipinos still do not have ready access to said modes.

Institutionalizing a coercive approach

At this point, more fundamental problems of the bill that our country might want to reconsider before we plunge into this “better normal” are worth mentioning. In particular the bill institutionalizes a coercive, policing, and militaristic approach to the pandemic (Section 11. Prohibited Acts; Section 12. Penalties). For example, “[f]ailure to wear a mask while in public spaces or in the workplace” is punished by a stern warning and community service. Moreover, prohibited “public gatherings as well as the flow of people in government-managed public spaces,” subject to exceptions in the IRR, is punished by imprisonment of one month and one day to two months or a fine from P1,000 to P50,000. We have seen in the past months that a militaristic and security approach is prone to abuse, and worse, to the spread of the virus.

The bill also lacks coherence on what “better normal” the House of Representatives wants to institutionalize. We see mentions of requiring sign interpretation in TV programs, supporting cultural workers, recycling single-use plastics, and rolling out the National Broadband Program (Section 6.H. Other Aspects of Better Normal); and directives on the national ID system, Philippine Economic-Environmental Natural Resources Accounting, e-commerce, telemedicine and e-prescription, water supply and sewerage, and climate finance, among others (Section 9. Specific Responsibilities of Particular National Government Offices, their respective Attached Agencies, and GOCCs). It is as if advocacies by different persons were just randomly pooled, without any intent to integrate them into a functioning whole.

Proposing a better ‘Better Normal’

The Better Normal Bill is an admittedly difficult legislation to draft as it is an attempt of the legislative to draw the metes and bounds of social interaction in public spaces, communities, workplaces, transportation, and schools, among others. More than that, it tries to sketch what aspects should consist the sustainable recovery and transition of the country out of the pandemic.

Sadly, while the objective is noble, the bill is not as comprehensive in responding to the needs of the ordinary Filipino as we hope it to be. We see an opaque image, hardly a long-term vision, of this “better normal,” The first rule in crisis situations like pandemics is not to do any harm. Unfortunately, this bill does more harm than good.

We call for the conduct of more public consultations. As we create the “better normal,” the voice of the sectors, including the marginalized, guided by science and facts, could potentially create a framework, and an image, of what the “better normal” in the Philippines will look like.

We call for nothing less than a transformative and adaptive leadership. The country does not need stop-gap measures in the guise of “transformative behaviors and interventions.”

We call for increased government support for strengthened public health systems to be included in the “better normal,” If there is anything that we should have learned from this pandemic as to governance, it is that the state has not kept up with its duty to ensure the health of every citizen.

We call for the restructuring of our economy to address once and for all systemic poverty, inequality, and social injustice.

We call for a better normal that is consistent with sustainable development, one that conserves our natural resources and protects our environment.

A better normal is possible, but not with this Better Normal Bill. We can do better.

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