A promise wasted
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, President Duterte sought to calm people’s fears amid the world’s longest and harshest lockdown by reassuring them that relief was on the horizon. Before the year was over, he said last year, a vaccine against this deadly variant of the coronavirus would be developed and made available to the people.
Even then, the President dangled the possibility of a “made-in-China” vaccine that, he claimed, Chinese authorities had assured him would be made available to ordinary folk.
Well, it is now 2021, and indeed the promise of vaccines against the virus has come to fruition. But Filipinos don’t seem all that eager to buy into the vaccine promise. Unlike some of its neighbors, the Philippines has yet to have a national vaccination program in place, with officials, medical authorities, and ordinary folk battling over issues like efficacy, effectivity, cost, manner of transport, equitable access, safety, etc. This comes in the wake of the belated action taken by the government to negotiate with drug manufacturers (with the exception of those from China and Russia), as well as to have the funds for a vaccination program at the ready.
Priorities, previously set as health frontliners first, followed by elderly indigents, remaining seniors, remaining indigents, and those in the uniformed services (police, soldiers) seem to have been turned on their heads. Months before the vaccines were officially allowed in, members of the Presidential Security Group, some top officials, and Chinese workers in online casinos were somehow allowed to jump the line and have themselves inoculated with what were essentially smuggled vaccines.
Surveys indicate that majority of Filipinos are, at best, hesitant about being vaccinated, particularly with the Chinese-made vaccines. That hesitancy is somewhat understandable. The Chinese vaccine Sinovac’s efficacy has been rated at somewhere between 50 and 70 percent while at the same time being the second most expensive, according to figures first furnished by Sen. Sonny Angara’s office that he subsequently clarified came from the Department of Health itself.
Vaccine “czar” Carlito Galvez Jr. has defended the administration’s seeming preference for Sinovac, saying that the drug has been made available at a cheaper price thanks to the intercession of the Chinese ambassador (“Napakabait po ng ating mahal na Chinese ambassador, binigay po ’yung best price”). He refused to disclose the amount, though, citing a nondisclosure agreement. He also invoked the examples of other countries—Singapore, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Egypt—that have availed themselves of Sinovac. At about the same time that Galvez was championing the Chinese vaccine, however, news came that Brazilian trials confirmed Sinovac’s efficacy at only 50.4 percent, even lower than was first announced. And in Indonesia, the first country to use Sinovac for mass vaccinations outside China, Reuters reported wariness among the country’s doctors over the choice of the Chinese vaccine.
Still, despite the opaqueness of the Chinese process and the Filipino public’s widespread concerns, the government has gone ahead and ordered a total of 25 million doses, with 50,000 doses expected next month. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque admonished Filipinos to not be “choosy” (“pihikan”) when it came to the vaccines they could access. Those harboring doubts about Sinovac, he said, were guilty of “colonial mentality”—as if a readiness to trust vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and other private companies that have been more open about their findings and processes stems from being besotted with white colonizers.
Still not finished with talking down to ordinary Filipinos, Roque then threatened that those who would refuse the vaccine offered for free by the government would have to sign a waiver that they were refusing the service, and by doing so would have to give up their places in the queue of vaccine recipients and take their place in the back of the line.
The vaccine program, it must be noted, exists to protect the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and to prevent the virus from infecting more people. People seek inoculation precisely to protect their health and those of their loved ones. Doesn’t every citizen have the right to seek the best form of protection, since it’s their tax money being spent and their very lives at possible risk? And for this critical task, isn’t the government obligated precisely to be most discerning—“choosy,” in a word—when seeking medical interventions on their behalf?
The President’s strange fondness for China, its promises, and its vaccines may only end up exacerbating the harsh impact on Filipinos of a cruel, unprecedented disease, the way his administration’s lapses, missteps, and general cluelessness so far are only extending the people’s suffering unnecessarily.
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