Buying protection with moxie and money
Outspoken journalist Ramon “Mon” Tulfo built his career and reputation on his exposés of government wrongdoing and hammer-and-tongs approach against criminals of all stripes. Tulfo’s no-holds-barred, confrontational approach seemingly spared no one, not even the highest authorities of the land.
But for all of Tulfo’s blunt invocations of integrity and the law when railing against miscreants, it appears he’s willing to bend the law himself when it’s for his own benefit. He had no qualms revealing recently that he had availed himself of Sinopharm vaccine shots as early as October last year. So far, only three vaccines—from Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Sinovac Biotech—have been granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Sinovac, a different made-in-China vaccine brand, was granted an EUA only very recently, but is expected to be the first to arrive, with 600,000 doses donated by the Chinese government.
As for Sinopharm, the FDA granted a “compassionate special permit” to the Presidential Security Group (PSG) for the use of 10,000 doses of this vaccine—but only after it was revealed that the presidential guards had availed themselves of smuggled, unauthorized Sinopharm doses. This was apparently the same batch that Tulfo and, according to him, some government officials, including Cabinet members and a senator, along with Tulfo’s two bodyguards, received—in flagrant violation of the law against the use of unregistered drugs in the country. Tulfo himself admitted that the shots he received were from “a friend who smuggled (the vaccine) into the country.”
While the Department of Health (DOH) and the FDA have launched an inquiry into the premature and illegal use of an unauthorized vaccine, that probe may go nowhere, as President Duterte himself has publicly backed the PSG against such probes.
Thus, the issues surrounding the vaccination program, such as they are, go far beyond Tulfo’s actions, although it can be said that his decisions and justifications are emblematic of the sense of entitlement exercised by the rich and well-connected in this country even in the face of a public health emergency. Tulfo, a Duterte partisan appointed as a special envoy to China by the President and with a huge media platform to his name, disclaimed any irregularity in his use of an illegal China-made drug, or any conflict of interest in his disclosure that he sought to be a distributor of Sinopharm in the country.
As announced by the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the government’s vaccination program will prioritize health care frontliners in both public and private facilities; senior citizens; persons with comorbidities not otherwise included in the first two categories; frontline personnel including soldiers, police, and those in other “essential” sectors; indigents; indigenous peoples; teachers and social workers, etc.
But the reality so far on the vaccine front is far from efficient, just, or even logical. For one, no health worker has yet been vaccinated, while powerful men in government (and thousands of Chinese nationals) have surreptitiously enjoyed the privilege. At this point, only showy “simulations” of the vaccine’s arrival and transport have been seen by the public. Indeed, the admission made by Tulfo brings home the fact that anyone with enough influence, clout, financial capability, or even just chutzpah could game the system and get around rules and regulations meant to impose order and fairness on the way the vaccines are purchased, distributed, and made available to ordinary citizens.
Even in supposedly egalitarian and law-abiding countries, the antics of a privileged few bring to the fore the sense of entitlement and selfishness exercised by those willing to jump the line for their own self-interest. In Canada, for instance, a wealthy couple hired a private plane to transport them to a remote region populated mostly by indigenous peoples and, under the guise of being “residents,” jumped the vaccine queue line even if so many others living in underserved areas went unprotected. In the United States, law enforcers pulled two young women from the line at a vaccination center. They had tried to disguise themselves as being elderly and were apprehended by police.
In the Philippines, though, such scofflaws need not hire a private plane or impersonate older people to avail themselves of vaccines before rightful recipients do. As the case of Tulfo shows, with enough moxie and money, those favored by this administration can defy the law and get away with it, even brag about it. The rest of the country, meanwhile, endures another shameful record: the Philippines now dead-last in Southeast Asia in vaccinating its citizens.
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