MANILA, Philippines (Updated 5:04 p.m.) — Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Monday called on government to buy more locally-made personal protective equipment (PPEs) to help protect medical frontliners and help boost local businesses.

She made the call amid what she said is massive government importation of PPEs.

The senator last week filed a resolution urging the Senate to get an update on the Bayanihan PPE Project, a government initiative to meet tight PPE supply by making more locally.

She said she filed the resolution following reports that only 10 million of the 57.6 million PPEs being produced monthly by the Coalition of Philippine Manufacturers of PPEs (CPMP) were procured by the government as part of the Bayanihan PPE Project.

“Our COVID-19 response budget can afford to supply more frontliners with more medical-grade equipment if we procure locally. We have the supply, we have the quality, and we have the funds — why are we still mass importing?” Hontiveros said in a mix of English and FIlipino.

She further called the “lack of preference for local PPE manufacturers in favor of costlier imports from countries like China” as “questionable, to say the least.”

“Bakit natin pipiliin ang imported PPEs na may kwestiyonableng kalidad kung kaya naman nating mag-produce ng dekalidad sa halos kaparehong presyo? Hindi praktikal ang mag-import pa, habang padami ng padami ang health workers na nagkakasakit,” Hontiveros added.

(Why are we choosing imported PPEs with questionable quality when we can produce quality [PPEs] for the same price? Its not practical to keep importing while more of our health workers continue to get sick.)

PPEs and other medical devices need to undergo quality checks by the Food and Drug Administration.

Give preference to local PPE manufacturers

In addition to seeking a probe through Senate Resolution no. 506, Hontiveros also filed Senate Bill No. 1796 which “requires government to give preference to qualified local manufacturers for the procurement of PPEs, medicines and other essential supplies during a pandemic.”

“Through such a policy, we can better ensure that our health workers receive the quality protection they deserve, and we can better protect a growing industry that can employ and has employed thousands of Filipino workers in a time of economic uncertainty,” she said.

Trade chief assures preference for local PPE manufacturers

During a Laging Handa briefing on Monday, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez maintained the government is prioritizing the purchase of locally-produced PPEs.

However, when pressed on whether the government has committed to purchasing a particlular amount of protective equipment from local manufacturers, Lopez said no such number had been decided yet.

“We have no commitment as to the number but under ‘Bayanihan 2’, all things equal, especially the standard, we still have preference for local manufacturers,” he said in a mix of English and FIlipino.

‘Bayanihan 2’ provides funding for programs to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic like economic slowdown.

Lopez added that local manufacturers are already taking part in the bidding process carried out by the Department of Budget and Management’s procurement service after a slight delay.

“At first, it took a bit of time to….get the necessary certification that [they] passed the standard,” he said partially in Filipino.

The trade secretary listed a reputable manufacturer, competitive prices, and above standard quality as the DBM’s requirements for PPE suppliers.

“I’ve seen their operations, and I can say that their products are really above standard. Even the materials are all medical grade, so they pass. This means they are viable and eligible to take part in bidding procedures,” he said.

Hontiveros on Monday also called for the immediate provision of more PPEs for frontliners nationwide as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, citing the “alarming notoriety” of the Philippines for having the infection rate among health workers in Southeast Asia.

“In the face of suffering, Filipinos have always come out as heroes. But so much of that suffering is unnecessary. Huwag nating sayangin ang kabayanihan ng ating mga health workers. (Lets not waste the heroism of our health workers),” Hontiveros urged.

Latest data from the Department of Health places the national coronavirus caseload at 217,396 and fatalities at 3,520.

It has been 167 days since the country was first put under lockdown, marking the longest community quarantine period in the world. — Bella Perez-Rubio