Here are the questions raised during our first COVID-19 webinar and the answers from BARMM local government minister and concurrent regional spokesperson Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo.
Question: Are all prayer services in the mosques in the region suspended?
Naguib Sinarimbo: Yes. The Grand Mufti of the regional government through his office has already issued a religious injunction prohibiting congregational prayers in all of the mosques in the region so there are no congregational prayers now in the autonomous region.
Q: Is the BARMM task force coordinating with national government?
NS: Yes, there's a very close coordination between the region and the national government. In fact the direct link for now is the emergency operations center of the Ministry of the Interior and Local Government (MILG) directly with the emergency operations center of the DILG national. We submit reports every six hours, so we update the national government on this one.
We are also closely coordinating on certain national programs that we are trying to complement in the region such as the amelioration package that the national government has actually given to local government units. Beyond that we also have our regional initiative and this one includes emergency augmentation fund that we are giving to local government units in the region. We are providing each of the five provinces P5-M augmentation fund, for cities P2-M, for the municipalities P1-M, all of the 116 municipalities. The 63 barangays in North Cotabato, we’ve allocated P8-M for them. That fund is essentially for supporting the local government units.
Q: Does the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act also apply in BARMM?
NS: The answer is yes. We are now arranging the transfer of the funds from DSWD national to the local government units in the Bangsamoro to also aid them in the fight against the pandemic.
Q: Does the BARMM plan to assess the socio-economic impact – medium and long-term – of COVID-19 on the region?
NS: Yes. There is an attempt to try to assess the socio-economic impact but it's too early for now. But we are already seeing the signs and our biggest worry is that this is also the period of summer in the region, so it's very difficult to plant in the region.
I was out yesterday (April 2) in the 63 barangays in North Cotabato. I’ve noticed that the fields there are really dry and it's difficult to plant so there would be serious implications. Big companies have stopped operations also. Banana plantations, cornstarch factories in the region are also seriously affected.
Q: What are BARMM’s plans to mitigate the social cost of the community quarantine? For example, the malnutrition situation in BARMM is very bad and the COVD-19 situation has affected food security and access to healthy and nutritious foods.
NS: For now, what we are doing is to provide supplemental assistance to local government units in feeding their constituents. For instance, we understand the barangays, the municipalities and the provinces have their fund for answering (to the situation) but where you have a lot of sixth class, fifth class municipalities in the region, you know that the funds would not be enough, which is why we're trying to supplement the funds of the local government units in the region.
On nutrition, yes, we are encouraging local government units to purchase food already produced in their municipalities. If we do that then we allow the circulation of money within the municipality. You can reduce the impact of the slowdown in the economic activity and provide more nutritious food alternatives to our constituents.
Q: Does the BARMM structure provide for emergencies like these?
NS: I think what has saved the region in this crisis is that, one, we’ve provided
a quick response fund (QRF) in the 2020 budget of the region which is quite substantial. Around three percent of the whole budget of the region is intended for QRF. And then there is a substantial contingency fund lodged at the Office of the Chief Minister. We are also utilizing that in the procurement of expensive medical supplies such as the testing machine, respirators, constructing the new medical facility that would house potentially large number of positive constituents of the region. That's the one we are working with Cotabato Sanitarium Hospital.
Q: Where is the fund lodged and is it necessary for the Parliament to issue a law that would provide for funding for expenses incurred?
NS: There's no need for Parliament -- we’ve discussed this with the Speaker and some members of the BARMM Parliament. This one pertains to the quick response fund (QRF) that's already allocated so we are actually using that. The other one is the contingency fund that’s also being utilized. There’s no need for further legislation to utilize these funds. The funds are already allocated in the 2020 Bangsamoro Appropriations Law.
Q: Is there a body that would check on the proper use of funds to avoid corruption especially at the lower levels?
NS: There are still existing mechanisms for checking on the funds. What we've done in the Ministry is monitor the expenditure of local government units of their calamity funds.
Last week I also issued a circular to LGUs allowing them to utilize and realign their funds beyond their calamity fund because we know the calamity fund would not be sufficient so we’ve allowed them to also utilize the 20 percent economic development fund by allowing the legislative bodies to allocate the funds, so they can use that also.
Q: What role does the private sector or civil society play during these emergencies?
NS: We have a lot of volunteers coming from civil society organizations. The biggest challenge for now is the community quarantine. While we have a lot of people willing to work, we do not want to risk bringing out these people, allowing them to move around because we are more afraid that these people would be potential carriers of the virus or they can get the virus from contacts with the other communities. For now, even if there are civil society organizations willing to partner with us, we're trying to ensure that we still observe social distancing and the need to try to mitigate the spread of the disease.
Q: What are the measures in protecting the most vulnerable both in terms of health and economic issues?
NS: What we've done in the region is to actually approach the assistance through four channels: One is the support to local government units in terms of medical supplies, food supplies through the MILG's Bangsamoro READI. The other one is the support to vulnerable sectors identified already by government and these are poorest of the poor, women, disabled, differently-abled persons, senior citizens. The assistance goes through the Ministry of Social Services and Development (MSSD). For supporting hospitals and rural health units the support goes through the Ministry of Health. For other sectors which are not covered by the three, for instance, where you have situations where mayors, governors and barangay officials neglect or hesitate to provide assistance to sectors that are perceived as not within their supporters, the Office of the Chief Minister steps in. You can directly request from the Office of the Chief Minister if it is not covered by MSSD because it's not enumerated in the sectors, so you have working people who have income but because of the community quarantine they cannot work and they do not have pay, the Office of the Chief Minister can actually respond to that. That's the approach we're currently employing in the region just to make sure everyone is actually covered.
Q: Is there a discussion with UN and others to launch a humanitarian appeal?
NS: The Bangsamoro READI, which is attached to my office, is actually in touch with the Mindanao Humanitarian Team. I have also spoken to some of the donors including JICA, the UN, if we can hold at least a sort of meeting like this one so we can share what we're actually doing in the region, what is the plan for addressing this pandemic, what are the gaps and where donors can actually play a role. I hope we can do that very, very quickly.
Q: Do you foresee the possibility of extending the community quarantine for another two more months? You said earlier that the peak would be two months from now.
NS: We are preparing for a scenario like this, the one that I that I said earlier which is where you have the possibility of the community quarantine being extended to a period of one month or two months, we are looking at that one but we know that if we move towards that it would really be very, very difficult to sustain the supply of food for many of the communities of the region.
What we're advocating in the region is two things. One, we need to be selective about community quarantine and make a critical distinction between urban centers and very rural areas. In urban centers yes, we can have a very effective community quarantine because you can restrict people and it is also important because in the urban center you have the greatest possibility of transmission, but in the rural areas, one you cannot have a very, very effective quarantine because the communities are very dispersed it's almost impossible to impose a community quarantine there. The other one is that the possibility of transmission because of the distances between houses in rural areas is not there. This would encourage agricultural activities.
The other one that is important for us in the community quarantine in the urban areas is to ensure that we conduct massive testing in the areas that we quarantine because if we will just do a time-lapse from Day 1 to 14 days or from this day to one month thereafter and there's no testing and after 14 days or a month you let everyone out without knowing exactly who are positive then it does not serve the purpose so there has to be massive testing for quarantine to be of real value to us.
Q: Aside from Cotabato Sanitarium Hospital, do we have other centers, facilities that will be used to house PUIs?
NS: Yes. We are looking at Amai Pakpak in Lanao del Sur and Marawi City. We’ve identified an area in the second district of the province of Maguindanao. We are looking at at least one area or facility in the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi because the community quarantine being imposed by the City of Zamboanga has made it very, very difficult for constituents of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi to move their patients to Zamboanga City, so we need to improve the facilities in the island provinces.
Q: Have the Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams (BHERTs) been trained already on exam and care of PUMs and/or PUIs?
NS: They've been empowered through a directive from my Ministry. What I cannot assure you is if they have been trained properly, but what we've done is to provide them the basic personal protection equipment – so masks, thermal temperature reading, we've provided that to them at least.
Q: Were there workers from Sabah who already returned to their homes in the island provinces? If yes, have they been examined/monitored? Is it by the BHERT or the MHU workers themselves?
NS: We do face very unique challenges in the island provinces, and as I was saying foremost of that is the returning workers from Sabah and that's becoming very, very difficult for us. The other one is transporting the goods and medical supplies from the regional government center in Cotabato City moving them towards the island provinces. Our only means for transporting for now is the facilities provided by the Western Mindanao Command. We are working closely with General Sobejana on this one.
Q: Is BARMM going to have a COVID-19 testing center?
NS: We are already procuring the equipment. What we're working on is to have an agreement with at least five institutions in the region that can house the facility because even if we have the equipment if it is not used because no one knows how to use it, you don't have an institution that is credible enough to say the result is positive or negative, then it becomes a problem, which is why we are negotiating with Cotabato Regional Medical Center to host the equipment that we will purchase, give it to them, train their people and then we can do testing there.
Q: How can different sectors help BARMM in its COVID-19 response?
NS: There are a lot of offer to assist but we will have to be mindful of the need to effectively impose community quarantine and second, observe the guidelines on social distancing.
Q: The assistance that is provided from the national government, does this include assistance for workers and those in the informal sector affected by the pandemic?
NS: The guideline from the national government on the utilization of the amelioration fund covers this sector.
Q: Is there a testing center in the island provinces?
NS: Unfortunately, there's none in the island provinces.
Q: How do we mobilize barangay health workers to help in monitoring PUMs and PUIs?
NS: They, BHWs, have been mobilized to help in the community quarantine and monitoring of PUMs in their barangays.
Q: Has IAFT-BARMM already crafted a comprehensive plan?
NS: There is a contingency plan that has been crafted. It’s a work in progress. We continue to update it as we move in the implementation of the same. It’s not static because the situation in the ground continues to change.
Q: For groups able to organize Manila-based private sector assistance to BARMM, with whom can they coordinate for the transport and delivery to BARMM, for instance, a donation of PPEs?
NS: Try to reach the emergency operations center, which is located in Bangsamoro READI office, and when you get in touch with them and you have the cargo already in Manila then we can contact the Armed Forces of the Philippines to help you transport the goods going to the region.
Q: How is BARMM’s contingency plan integrated with DSWD/national government, specifically the Social Amelioration Program and budget?
NS: It’s included in the plan. The assistance coming from national government is factored in the contingency plan of the region. We’ve identified potential sources of assistance to the region and that include national government, INGOs, donor institutions and a bulk of that, however, is funded by the regional government through the two fund resources: the quick response fund and the contingency fund of the Office of the Chief Minister.
Q: Are you aware of the armed conflict in non-Moro areas?
NS: Yes. What we can confirm is that there are three areas where fighting has occurred in the past weeks. One is in Ampatuan that includes IP communities in Saniag; there's a fighting in Talitay area and there's fighting in Pagalungan, Pagagawan area as of, I think, two days ago.
Q: What is the situation for farmers and fisher folks in bringing and selling their produce to the markets?
NS: Currently we have a problem with products entering Cotabato City because of the quarantine. For instance producers in Sultan Mastura in Sultan Kudarat – they have difficulty bringing their vegetables to Cotabato City so most of these goods are now in the boundary between Cotabato City and Sultan Kudarat. We already asked our people in the MSSD as well as in the Bangsamoro READI and LGUs if we can purchase these products so we can include it as a package in the goods that we distribute to our constituents.
The bigger plan for us is to create a platform and the fund needed for buying palay produced by farmers. The reason for that is we want to encourage farmers in the region to continue planting rice so that we can have food in the next few months. At the rate we are going where Vietnam has said it will no longer export its rice, where you have, for instance, Bukidnon saying it will not allow the sale of rice from Bukidnon going to other areas – if that continues then we will have to make sure we have sufficient palay production in the region. The only way to encourage that is to put up a fund and tell the farmers that we will buy their produce at a higher price. This one will trigger farmers to farm and plant palay if they have assurance that the regional government will buy that -- very advanced discussion already with the Chief Minister and the Ministry of Agriculture in the region so we will probably move towards that.
Q: Does BARMM have plans regarding transparency in terms of budget allocated for COVID-19 response?
NS: Yes. We continue to publish what is included in the food packs that we are distributing to our constituents. We’ve asked LGUs to disclose also the assistance that we are providing – this is the augmentation fund that we are providing to LGUs. We've asked them to provide us the list of the priorities for them so that we can monitor that. There are transparency measures being adopted now.
Q: What would be the impact of the COVID-19 response on normalization implementation including the next decommissioning phase?
NS: The first is that the implementation of the normalization process has been impacted by the COVID-19. For instance, we have, I think 140 decommissioned MILF combatants coming from Sulu who are now trapped in Darapanan because they cannot go home to Sulu because Sulu has said they will not allow the entry of people from the mainland going into the province of Sulu for now during the quarantine.
We are feeding these people in Darapanan. OPAPP asked us to provide the assistance to these decommissioned combatants. At the rate we are going, there would be a delay, I'm sure, in the normalization process. There is fear that some of the funds that are allocated for normalization and decommissioning would be rechanneled to fight COVID-19.
That's the real fear. I think we will we will have to discuss that with our colleagues, counterparts from government to assure our combatants that the decommissioning process and the package that have been agreed will continue to be available to them.
Q: Aside from planting palay, shall we encourage our farmers to plant short-term crops?
NS: Yes. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Agrarian Reform (MAFAR-BARMM) is currently distributing vegetables seeds to farmers in anticipation of the food crisis that the pandemic would trigger in the region.
Q: Are early recovery efforts in place?
NS: We are not yet moving towards early recovery. We are still in the midst of a crisis and we are responding to that, but we're hoping that the current intervention will really move us towards an early recovery and ultimately, recovery and development. That's how we are looking at the current interventions and the plans that we have.
Q: Any update on members of the Tabligh who attended the events in Malaysia?
NS: We now have a list provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs to us. What we've done is to issue a memorandum to local government units all the way to the barangays in the in region and that's 2,590 barangays in the region to track and monitor those who participated in the religious congregation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We've already identified around 30 people who participated and are now being monitored very, very closely.
Q: Were there workers from Sabah who actually returned to their homes in the island provinces?
NS: They will need to observe the 14-day quarantine. What we've agreed with the provincial government of Tawi-Tawi and the commanding general of Western Mindanao Command is to provide an island where we can quarantine them for 14 days. We've been assisted by UNHCR in this venture by providing us the tents that were used as quarantine area in the islands.
Q: Did BARMM include in its budget any assistance like food or for health for families during the entire duration of the quarantine?
NS: The amelioration fund is actually a fund from DILG national. The understanding is that they will transfer that to local government units who would provide the assistance. What is being agreed now is with respect to the list of the target beneficiaries between the DSWD (national) and MSSD in the region and the local government units just to be sure that the targets are the beneficiaries that are truly deserving of the assistance.
The coordination meeting between MSSD and DSWD is not yet done. The challenge for DSWD national is they do not have people in the region so if the fund goes directly to the LGU, they don’t have people who would monitor it, so they have to use the MSSD structure in the region to be able to monitor that.
Q: What is the plan of BARMM for IDPs in Marawi?
NS: Marawi is really complicated because of displacement and COVID-19. What we've agreed with the provincial government (of Lanao del Sur) is that we will have three waves of assistance. The first wave would be from barangays and municipalities. The second wave would be the provincial government. The third wave of assistance would come from the region. What we've exempted here is the fund that was already transferred by MSSD to their provincial office as early as two weeks ago. That assistance is intended to target very poor families during the quarantine, so that's already ongoing. But the third wave, we will focus that on vulnerable sectors in Lanao del Sur, including IDPs.
The other one is that there are temporary shelters in Marawi, which are not currently occupied and the provincial government has identified this to become the facility for housing PUIs in Lanao del Sur in the event there would be a spike in the cases in the province. They will utilize the temporary shelter for that.
Q: What is the advantage or disadvantage of an asymmetric autonomous parliamentary setup in this situation? What would be the provisions needed for the regional codes to make this better?
NS: There was a proposal to convene the Parliament but the difficulty was that most of their members are already in quarantine. Some are in the island provinces and they cannot move here (Cotabato City) because of the lack of transport. Because of that, the center of action has been with the Cabinet. We need to loop the members of the Parliament into what is actually happening at the level of the Cabinet. I think that's a missing link for now. We should make an extra effort to inform the members of the Parliament of what is actually the response being undertaken at the level of the Cabinet.
Q: Until when is the closure of the mosques?
NS: It will take time. For now the direction really is to ensure we will not have conditions for easy transmission of the virus. The mosques have been identified because of the congregational prayers. For as long as that is needed, I think the Darul Ifta’ of the BARMM will not lift the prohibition on congregational prayers. They’ve also issued a new guideline on dealing with Muslims who’ve died of COVID-19. The usual rituals have been shortened to ensure that the dead body does not transmit the disease to the one handling the cadaver. We’ve already sent that to LGUs so that the management of the dead, which is under the MILG, is guided by the religious pronouncement.
Q: Apart from the Social Amelioration Program (SAP), is there post-COVID-19 support plans for the most affected sectors?
NS: We will really have to do a more comprehensive plan for that one. For now what we’ve identified really is the agriculture sector because of the need for food security in the region. A lot of the assistance would be focused on agriculture to make sure our people produce sufficient rice and sufficient food to be able to feed our people.
There’s also a spike in the prices. The LGUs have been directed to activate their Local Price Coordinating Council (LPCC), but at the rate we are observing it, the prices have not really been controlled. For instance, we started with 1,600 pesos per bag of rice in the region, now we are buying it at 2,000 pesos, or an increase of around 400 pesos per bag of rice. It will continue to increase unless we put in place a very effective price freeze in the region that LGUs can implement.
The other one is that there is going to be a shortage of medical supplies, even medicines in the region. For instance, now we wanted to include in the package vitamin C, not just rice, canned goods, but also vitamin C so we can supplement the food intake of our people, but we cannot buy vitamin C now. It's not available in the stores in Cotabato City.
Our alternative is to look at some other produce of farmers in the region, so I am negotiating with a farmer that would harvest his calamansi in the next few days. We will buy that and include that in the package of food assistance that we're giving to our constituents.
Q: Can you tell us the guidelines of the BARMM for the Social Amelioration Card (SAC)?
NS: The guidelines for the (SAC) are with the Ministry of Social Welfare and Development (MSSD). That's where they will have it.
Q: One challenge for BARMM is the limited number of 4Ps households who have cash cards and majority still use over-the-counter payments. Another problem is the registration and identification of the other beneficiaries (informal workers, unemployed, etc.) who will benefit from the Social Amelioration Program, because of social distancing measures. How is BARMM planning to address this?
NS: For now, we cannot even release the 4Ps because if you release it now, if we do the payout, that means we will converge a lot of people in one area and we cannot observe social distancing.
The instruction from national government is to postpone the payout and this is making difficult the lives for many of the beneficiaries. So, I think we need to find the way very quickly on how we can do the payout given the challenge of not having banks and transferring this money to an ATM card. We need to find alternatives for this one. We would really encourage people to make suggestions on how best we can deal with this one.