Duterte’s mendicant foreign policy
“Gross injustice.” That’s how Philippine President Duterte, or rather his eloquent speechwriter, portrayed the ongoing scramble for COVID-19 vaccines.
To be fair, he has a point. After all, to truly defeat the pandemic, much of the world’s population will have to gain access to affordable vaccines in the near future. “No one is safe unless everyone is safe,” so goes the motto.
Upon closer examination, however, one discovers not only an element of righteous anger, but also yet another lamentable instance of defeatism in Mr. Duterte’s remarks, on top of incompetence and a brazen lack of proactiveness.
Being a developing country is no excuse, especially when our Southeast Asian neighbors are set to roll out vaccines in the coming weeks, with some developing their own vaccines altogether.
Lest we forget, the Philippines is a “middle-income” country with a sizable gross domestic product, among the 35 largest in the world and potentially among the 20 biggest within half a generation. Thanks to more than a decade of macroeconomic reforms, beginning under the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration and reaching its zenith under the succeeding Aquino presidency, the “investment-grade” Philippines now enjoys easy and affordable access to international financing.
The Philippines is also among the 15 largest nations in terms of population. So by no means are we a “small country.” In short, we are not some helpless and poor country. We have the requisite resources to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, provided we have a semblance of competent leadership.
And yet, Mr. Duterte’s pronouncements reek of what the nationalist senator Claro M. Recto once aptly described as “our mendicant foreign policy.”
Of course, it’s true that global injustice is once again at play, with the world’s richest countries, which have the greatest ability to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, set to become among the first recipients of vaccines.
According to our vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., richer countries were able to secure up to 80 percent of the initial supply of vaccines.
Just over 10 percent of the world’s population has secured access to more than half of total vaccines by reputable pharmaceutical companies, according to Oxfam. Per another estimate, the G7 industrialized nations, along with smaller developed nations, have cornered at least 3.1 billion doses.
What Mr. Duterte and his lieutenants conveniently omit, however, is that the Philippines was in a good position to secure large doses of vaccines earlier this year. We had no shortage of resources to secure vaccines. Years of rapid economic growth and billions of dollars of assistance from international organizations such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank placed us in a favorable position.
But now, it might take years, if not half a decade, before a majority of Filipinos gain access to reliable and affordable vaccines, not because we are a “poor” country per se, but precisely because the government failed to be proactive when push came to shove.
Practically begging for vaccines from Russia and China, none of which are known to have world-class pharmaceutical companies yet, Mr. Duterte spent too much time lashing out at “profit-oriented” developers of tried-and-tested vaccines in the West. At one point, the President made dubious claims of supposed constitutional restrictions on large-scale advance purchase of world-class vaccines from places such as the United States and Europe.
By the time he changed his mind, something which Mr. Duterte often does with reliably sub-optimal outcomes, the Philippines was way behind the curve. It was not until the twilight days of November that the country was, thanks to the efforts of some private firms, able to secure 2.6 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Meanwhile, neighboring Indonesia, which is developing its own vaccines and has secured large doses from leading Western companies, is set to initiate mass inoculation in the coming weeks. It has already received 1.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from China.
As for Vietnam, the country is now testing its own indigenously developed vaccines, which have entered the final phase of trials. What these fellow developing countries show is that proactiveness is the key, and that being a developing country is no excuse for incompetence.
To paraphrase Health Secretary Francisco Duque III: The Philippines was perhaps not late, it’s just that others were earlier in securing vaccines!
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