The Philippine health minister, facing questions over more than $1 billion in COVID-19 spending, denied on Saturday that any money was “stolen”, as his department vowed to account for every peso.
The country is battling one of Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, and the spread of the virulent delta variant is overwhelming hospitals and healthcare workers.
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“You will be assured that no money went into corruption. None was stolen. I am sure of that,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque told DZMM radio on Saturday.
The state auditor has flagged “deficiencies” involving 67.3 billion pesos ($1.33 billion), casting doubts on the regularity of related transactions in the country’s pandemic response.
The health ministry said it will submit its explanation, including required documents, to the state auditor next week, ahead of a Sept. 27 deadline.
With more than 1.71 million infections and 29,838 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest COVID-19 cases and fatalities in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.
The Manila capital region, an urban sprawl of 16 cities that is home to more than 13 million people, remains under a strict lockdown to contain the spread of the delta variant.
Only around 11 percent of the country’s 110 million people are fully immunized. Nearly a quarter of the country’s 1,291 hospitals are at the critical risk level – with occupancy rates at or above 85 percent – government data showed.
Small hospitals near the capital region are getting overwhelmed by surging cases.
A 50-bed public hospital in Binan city south of the capital is trying to treat 100 to 200 patients, most of them in corridors and tents separated by curtains in the parking lot, Dr. Melbril Alonte, its medical director, told DZMM radio.
“The sad truth is patients continue to increase and there are no signs of it easing,” Alonte said, adding that the facility’s nurses and doctors are already getting sick from exhaustion.
Dozens of nurses could resign over months of unpaid special risk allowance, Jocelyn Andamo, secretary general of the Filipino Nurses United, told Reuters. Healthcare workers will hold a nationwide protest next week, she said.