A glimpse of the waste of COVID-19 funds

With this issue, the Catanduanes Tribune begins its regular feature of annual audit reports of the Commission on Audit (COA) of the transactions of the 11 municipalities and the province.

Their report on Caramoran gives the reading public an idea of the scale of the wastage of scarce public funds that occurred in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began its rampage across the Philippine archipelago.

The audit team discovered instances of non-compliance with guidelines governing the release of the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP) unfer the Social Amelioration Program of the national government.

It found that the local government extended cash assistance to families whose members are either elected barangay officials or job order employees.

Among the otherwise unqualified recipients were six job order employees of the municipal government, including the daughter of an incumbent municipal councilor, as well as a Sangguniang Kabataan chairman.

The SAP-ESP, the COA pointed out, aims to provide financial assistance to families with no or low income at all due to the pandemic, not ineligible JO employees and barangay officials.

The team also discovered that at least 12 members of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) received twice the P30,000 cash assistance, with barangay officials giving forms to unqualified families while some heads of families intentionally lied in filling up the forms.

There was likewise inadequate documentation of the release of the funds, preventing the complete validation of the recipients of the cash.

Assuming that the seven ineligible SAP-ESP recipients and the 12 families who received an extra P30,000 are symptomatic of the same process in the country’s 1,488 municipalities, the P35,000 windfall of JO workers and the P360,000 excess assistance to 4Ps members come up to at least P488 million in lost funds.

The COA blamed the LGU’s weakness in internal controls, delay in transmission of vital references, lack of cooperation from the barangay and human error for the infractions committed in the SAP benefit release.

Add to this the evident lack of guilt and shame of the unqualified recipients and the willingness of the LGU officials to overlook a violation of law.

It should likewise be pointed out that last year, at the height of the imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), there was not even a need to implement ECQ in many parts of the nation, including Catanduanes.

By March and April of 2020, there was only one case of COVID-19 detected in the province.

Had the Duterte administration not overreacted and instead confined the lockdowns to Metro Manila and other key cities with rising coronavirus cases, it could have saved the resources of the government for later, when the virus spread beyond the NCR.

But they needed to be seen doing something, after allowing Chinese tourists in for fear of angering President Xi Jin Ping.

And all that the ECQ achieved in just a few months was to waste billions of pesos released through local officials who were more than happy to oblige, giving away cash just like on the eve of election day.

It pains taxpayers to see their hard-earned taxes being spent this way by the national government.

To at least relieve the public’s agony, the very least the COA can do is to complete the audit of all funds borrowed and spent by the national government for the COVID-19 pandemic, from the cash assistance to the billions also used for buying vaccines.

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