Before we begin mass vaccination
Two things are to be considered in the envisioned nationwide mass immunization against COVID-19: First, it has to be depoliticized—completely, if possible; and second, the source of the vaccine has to be diversified, which means it should not be a monopoly of China.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. should take steps so that politicians, including the ones in the ruling coalition, should not use mass immunization as part of the run-up to the 2022 presidential polls. Because the program involves huge sums of state funds, Galvez should take all steps to ensure it will not be a lucrative source of campaign funds. Galvez should not allow the program to be hijacked for partisan reasons.
Moreover, sources for the COVID-19 vaccines should be diversified, because it does not make sense that all vaccines would come from China, as President Duterte wants. Modern-day China has been a primary source of fake and counterfeit goods, including medicines. It is globally perceived as a state that has been violating with impunity international copyright and patent laws, to the detriment of Western countries and global entities that subscribe to the rules.
Depending on the availability of the ballyhooed vaccines, the mass immunization program is to start by the second quarter of 2021. It seeks to vaccinate 25 million in the remaining nine months of 2021 and another 25 million in 2022, or a total of 50 million for the first two years. The remaining 60 million would have theirs by the third, fourth, and fifth year.
The first to be given the vaccines are the frontline health workers—medical doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and other health workers whose jobs mandate them to attend to COVID-19 patients. They will be followed by “essential workers,” whose job is to propel the national economy. The third group is the “vulnerable sector” composed of senior citizens, persons with disabilities, and infants and babies. However, Mr. Duterte has also repeatedly stated in his late-night public addresses that he wants “his” police and military to receive the vaccines first.
The mass immunization program would have a budget of at least P38 billion in 2021, of which P10 billion would come from the Bayanihan Act 2 and P28 billion from the 2021 national budget, which is currently under deliberation in Congress. The exact budgetary allocation has yet to be fixed by Congress, although published reports said it could reach P28 billion. Of the P28 billion, only P10 billion would constitute the programmed part, while the rest is unprogrammed, or subject to the availability of funds.
Of the proposed 2021 national budget of P4.5 trillion, the budget coordinating committee had earmarked P2.5 billion for the mass immunization program. Lawmakers have said the budget is too small and have called to raise it, although they have disagreements on the final amount. Certain lawmakers wanted to raise it to P150 billion, although it’s not clear if that would cover a single year, or the entire five years of the program’s implementation.
Because of the magnitude of the mass immunization program, the 2021 budgetary outlay of P18 billion is indeed insufficient. That allocation comes to about P72 per person. Many poor and vulnerable citizens would be deprived of the vaccines, especially if politicians also dip their hands into the program budget for use in their political campaigns in the 2022 presidential elections.
Galvez has to use his powers to obtain cheaper vaccines not just from the US, but also from member states of the European Union like France and Germany, and Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Galvez and his staff could explore India as well as an alternative to China. India has profound medical traditions. Moreover, it has been a source of cheaper generic medicine. In fact, when the Cheaper Medicines Act of 2008 was being discussed in Congress, lawmakers identified India as a source of cheaper generic medicine.
Galvez does not have to alter the platform, which the national government did when it launched its anti-polio mass immunization program in 1993 and the mass vaccination program against polio and measles in 2014. He has to make full use of barangay health workers, and health organizations that belong to civil society, the business community, and industrial workers. That is, if the Duterte administration can generate enough trust and confidence from these sectors. That would be the challenge for Galvez, who is not a medical worker.
Philip M. Lustre Jr. ([email protected]) is a journalist and freelance writer on varied topics, mainly politics and social issues.
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