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Prioritize hotspots for vaccination

The country is reeling from a surge of COVID-19 infections. According to the Octa Research Team, the National Capital Region, Region 4A, and Region 3 have been posting the majority of these new cases, with Metro Manila accounting for more than half of the infections. The situation has hammered the health care system in NCR, with stories and reports of people having difficulty getting family members in need of medical attention admitted to a hospital or emergency care facility in the metro.

While supplies of vaccines have already arrived, these doses are still very much limited. The government has had no choice but to implement strict quarantines once again to slow the spread of the virus. However, the fact that the Duterte administration hesitated to reimpose ECQ until the surge in cases was undeniable and the health care system was begging for relief affirms the view that the economy cannot handle another prolonged lockdown without compromising the prospects of a recovery.

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As things stand, the government urgently needs to effectively keep NCR Plus under lockdown to decrease the infection rate and allow the health care system to recover and stabilize. The impact on the economy and the difficulties the new lockdown is causing are hits the country will have to take. For a sense of perspective regarding this dilemma, it may help to heed the words of President Nana Akufo-Addo of the Republic of Ghana who said: “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life.”

However, while saving lives takes primacy, the negative effect of a prolonged lockdown on the economy presents its own set of grave issues. To say that some people will end up dying of hunger instead of the virus is an all-too-real possibility that cannot be ignored. What is crucial and urgent in this situation is vaccinating as many people as soon as possible. In this regard, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious

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Diseases/National Task Force may need to modify its Philippine National COVID-19 Vaccination Deployment Plan and revisit its priority listing, considering that the vaccine supply is limited and are arriving in batches, and with the bulk of the vaccines arriving only toward the third and fourth quarters of the year.

The government should seriously consider prioritizing all available vaccines arriving in the second quarter and directing them to those in COVID-19 hotspots such as NCR, Region 4A, and Region 3. There has been some mention of this adjustment. In a briefing last March 21, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque noted that the IATF was looking to prioritize NCR in its vaccination drive. Likewise, Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said during a radio interview that, of the batches of vaccines that have already arrived in the country, 75 percent would be reallocated to the three hotspot regions.

Such an adjustment makes practical sense, not only from a medical and health safety point of view, but also from an economic point of view. The hotspot regions of NCR, Region 4A, and Region 3 account for around 60 percent of the country’s economic activity, with Metro Manila responsible for half of that output. It is thus not surprising that presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion also recommended that the vaccines the private sector had volunteered to donate to the government should be given to NCR.

In light of these factors, the government would do well to primarily focus its vaccination drive in the second quarter of this year on the three hotspot regions regardless of prioritization category, with the exception of frontline health workers (Category A1) in other parts of the country. It may not seem fair or equitable to other regions at this point, but such short-term hard choices have to be made to ensure that the country’s economic prospects stand a better chance of faster healing and recovery, for the benefit of the entire country.

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Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer, and was diplomatically posted to the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles and the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.

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TAGS: COVID-19, Gallaga, vaccination
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