Under the prioritization rules agreed upon by the Department of Health and the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group in consultation with the World Health Organization, the first to receive the vaccines now trickling into the country are the estimated 1.7 million medical frontliners who are constantly exposed to the virus, followed by vulnerable groups such as senior citizens and those with comorbidities or prior chronic illnesses that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
The priority list could not be any clearer, with no mention anywhere of local officials (much less celebrities). And yet several mayors from different parts of the country were proud to announce on social media that they had received their first dose of the vaccine, ostensibly to show their constituents that the medicine was safe.
“I have said it before that I am willing to be vaccinated first just to encourage our people to have themselves vaccinated,” said Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez.
The WHO, however, has explicitly warned the Philippine government that the prioritization schedule should be rigorously followed lest it loses access to the global COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which the country is counting on receiving as many as 44 million vaccine doses, or more than half of what is required to achieve herd immunity in the country.
The first 487,200 AstraZeneca jabs under the COVAX facility arrived early March, with up to 9.2 million doses more said to be arriving within the second quarter. The rest is supposed to come in before the end of the year, but the WHO’s admonition is stark: “If we cannot demonstrate that we are following this prioritization, unfortunately, the COVAX may have to consider other options where the impact of the vaccine rollout will be more useful and practical and will contribute to saving more lives,” said WHO Philippines representative Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe. “If there are multiple reports of violation of that prioritization, the COVAX may have to decide how to address that challenge. My word of caution is let’s not go there.”
Faced with accelerating COVID-19 infection cases across the country, the Duterte administration has placed its hopes on vaccines to lift the longest lockdown in the world and get the battered economy back on its feet. A government in such a tight spot would certainly pull out all the stops to ensure that the prioritization schedule is followed and violators are punished.
But, frustratingly, instead of coming down hard on erring officials jumping the line, Malacañang seems more inclined to give them a free pass.
Letters demanding that these LGU chiefs explain why they cut the queue were sent by the Department of the Interior and Local Government. But in the next breath, that censure was practically made moot with DILG Undersecretary Epimaco Densing III opining that the department sees no liability for now, and that the violators—including actor Mark Anthony Fernandez, whose early inoculation was defended by Parañaque City Mayor Edwin Olivarez as justified because the 42-year-old celebrity allegedly had comorbities—would likely come away unpunished (“mukhang makakalusot”). Densing did have the gall to remind everyone else to follow the rules (“Pero sana yung mga ordinaryong Pilipino na sisingit, makonsensiya naman kayo”).
That forked-tongue response to thoughtless VIP behavior was reinforced by no less than President Duterte, who in a TV address declared that politicians wanting “to show to the constituents that [the vaccine] is safe” represented a “gray area” of enforcement.
Palace mouthpiece Harry Roque attempted a different tack: He claimed there was actually a so-called “quick substitution list” that allows non-healthcare workers to get first crack at the vaccines, “if a health worker does not arrive or refuses a vaccine.” Asked about that list, the DILG said it was “the first time we’re hearing about it.”
Seemingly not to be left out in offering more leeway to his political colleagues, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III—who himself got into hot water last year for brazenly violating quarantine protocols—pushed for revising the priority list to include LGU officials: “Since the focus of the entire government is this medical crisis, then these local chief executives are actually ‘health frontliners,’ too.”
That’s fine and dandy—if there are more than enough vaccine doses to go around for the horde of local government officials across the archipelago that would need to be accommodated. But what’s available in the country at this point, given the much-delayed vaccination program, all need to go to protecting every single health frontliner. “Let’s not take the vaccines meant for the people who are supposed to safeguard our lives,” reminded DOH spokesperson Ma. Rosario Vergeire. Those in positions of power and privilege should have the decency to heed the plea.
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