Vaccine hesitancy is our nat’l emergency
The biggest mobilizational effort that needs to be mounted by Filipinos that will affect their lives over the next decade is the effort to get 75 million adults vaccinated against COVID-19. This is equivalent to all the presidential candidates during the 2016 presidential election joining hands and going out like crazy to campaign for people to get vaccinated. Every qualified adult knows that it is important to register and vote, even if they do not do so. As to COVID-19, 40 percent of Filipinos will hesitate or refuse to be vaccinated.
I have openly voiced my own vaccine hesitancy to my friends on social media. But I have changed my mind. My hesitancy melted after viewing a single video of Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, a Dominican priest with a Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talking to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. I realized that my vaccine hesitancy had been colored by my political journey over the past several years.
The biggest source of my vaccine hesitancy was the unison with which the scientific community, upon the outbreak of COVID-19 over a year ago, cautioned the world against expecting a vaccine against COVID-19 anytime soon. Vaccine development was supposed to take years and decades. Then, suddenly, the big pharmaceutical companies started coming out with vaccines like magic in record time. I viewed this development with some suspicion. But Father Austriaco explains that the COVID-19 vaccine development has been short-circuited by the generous funding of governments and the private sector. Also, the virulence and intensity with which the pandemic has taken many countries like Brazil and the United States has given researchers adequate subjects and material to undertake the required laboratory work and clinical trials. This was not the same for other diseases like Ebola or HIV. The development of vaccines across countries with independent regulators also militates against false claims.
The second source of my hesitancy was my misunderstanding of what 60 percent efficacy of a vaccine might mean. If my chance of being infected by COVID-19 is still 40 percent anyway, why would I accept that and not go for the 95 percent efficacy that is offered by other vaccines? Now, I am made to understand that the 60 percent applies to the chance of preventing a severe infection, perhaps spelling the difference between a mild cough and intubation, or life and death. Put that way, I would go for an earliest available vaccine with 50 percent efficacy.
This goes to my third source of hesitancy. Why is the government insisting on promoting Sinovac to the Filipino nation, knowing that the political trust atmosphere militates against that acceptance? Not only is there low trust of the Chinese government which has made the vaccine available, there is also low trust of the Philippine government’s management of the pandemic, marked by inadequate consultation with health professionals and local government officials. Despite my continuing doubts about corruption, the clincher for me is this: The production of vaccines by Western countries for 2021 (good for 5.6 billion people) is not enough for the whole world (7.8 billion people), and already 80 percent of the anticipated total Western production has been bought preemptively by the United States, the European Union, Britain, Canada, and Japan. Only 800 million doses are available for the rest of the world, which is why the vaccine production of China (Sinovac and Sinopharm) and Russia (Gamaleya) are critical for marginal countries like the Philippines.
My fourth source of hesitancy relates to the impossible delivery and storage requirements of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines that the government aims to procure. These vaccines require ultra-low temperatures “colder than Antarctica.” In a country where relief goods and ordinary drugs are left to expire and rot, there is not much chance the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine you get would still be potent when it reaches you. The strategy apparently is that these two vaccines will be reserved for Metro Manila, where ultra-low temperature storage and delivery facilities might be acquired and deployed in time.
I now realize with alarm that for our survival as a nation, everybody needs to help dissipate vaccine hesitancy, especially among the vulnerable poor, and with the more virulent COVID-19 strain already in our midst. Science has done its part, but it is not enough.
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