‘The best vaccine’
Perhaps ordinary citizens of this sad Republic should be forgiven for their less-than-ebullient reception to the arrival of the first batch of donated Sinovac vaccines. Even the arrival of the first batch of AstraZeneca vaccines through the global Covax facility failed to raise the sort of excitement expected from a nation that had been straining at the bit as its neighbors got their vaccination programs off to a running start.
Maybe the lukewarm reception was because the vaccines had been promised for weeks on end, only to have people’s hopes dashed when inexplicable delays hampered their arrival. Given surveys that showed the public was wary and even hostile to the China-made vaccines, people’s fears were somewhat assuaged when it was announced that the Pfizer vaccine, followed by AstraZeneca, which scored the highest in terms of efficacy, were the first to be given EUA or emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. Still, for a while, no official trace of any vaccine was detected on our shores while neighboring countries were well on their way with their mass vaccination programs; indeed, we were the last member of the Asean to roll out our own campaign. Of course, unofficially the story was different: As revealed by President Duterte no less, another Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm, had been smuggled into the country as early as September last year and given to members of the Presidential Security Group and a few privileged individuals.
The vaccines’ arrival had been presaged by showy simulations of the medicines’ arrival, transport to storage facilities, and the inoculation of health workers. Puzzlingly, however, supposed hitches in “paperwork” delayed the arrival of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vials, so that Sinovac gained the dubious honor of being the first to be administered to health workers in the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle. Tellingly, at the Philippine General Hospital, the number of workers willing to receive Sinovac shots was dismal, prompting PGH officials and even government bigwigs to have themselves vaccinated to demonstrate the safety of the Chinese vaccine.
Public resistance to the Chinese vaccines has prompted disingenuous remarks from government officials. Vaccine czar and former general Carlito Galvez Jr. reminded folks not to wait for the “best vaccine” because “ang pinaka-best vaccine iyong effective at efficient na dumarating ng mas maaga”—conveniently forgetting that the delay and the paucity of vaccine choices were the government’s fault, despite the trillions of pesos handed the administration for the purchase of the drugs.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III laid the blame for the delay in the vaccines’ arrival at the doorstep of “rich countries” whose global hoarding drastically cut the available supply. The best vaccine, he stressed, is “iyong andito na” (what’s available). But even if the World Health Organization has expressed concern over how wealthy countries have seemingly cornered the world’s vaccine supply, why did other countries, some of them poorer than the Philippines, get their hands on vaccines much sooner than we did? Duque had been previously chided by fellow Cabinet members and senators for “dropping the ball” in negotiations with Pfizer for the early supply of vaccines.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, batting for the administration’s efforts to reopen the economy, once again put foot in mouth when he said that “Filipinos have had too long a vacation” because of COVID-19. Vacation? Is that the word to describe the deaths, illness, hardship, hunger, poverty, stress, and loss of jobs and opportunity that followed in the wake of the harsh lockdowns and community quarantines?
At the ceremony marking the arrival Thursday of AstraZeneca, the President was late by two hours and had perfunctory remarks of goodwill; the previous night, he declared that he was wary of products from Western countries. Contrast this with his profuse, starry-eyed demonstration of gratitude toward Beijing for the Sinovac donation (“China has been giving us everything but never asked anything from us”), and for the supposed special favor of a “military plane” being sent to the Philippines to deliver the supply. (China had earlier done the same thing for Cambodia.)
Such gestures only reinforce the widespread perception that the administration has bent over backwards to give China the first shot at meeting the country’s demand for vaccines. “The best vaccine is what’s available”? Crucial context is grossly overlooked in that official spin. Who, whether by design or sheer ineptness, restricted the options in the first place, and abdicated their responsibility to provide the Filipino public the best vaccines out there—which they deserve and which other similar countries had managed to get—and not only those donated by presidential friends?
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