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Ensuring only the desperate get vaccinated

Last Monday, a retired professor of the University of the Philippines, Prof. Elizabeth Angsioco, went on Facebook to share her previous day’s experience getting vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Diosdado Macapagal Elementary School in Quezon City. For her, the weeks of waiting were over. By 8:55 a.m., she was at the site. But by the time she finally got her vaccination and was able to rest, it was 6:24 p.m., or some 9.5 hours later. Her life-saving journey was a life-sapping ordeal.

She thought no senior citizen should go through the same horrible experience, and it took her all of 2,400 words to share with the public the excruciating details, just so, she said, Mayor Joy Belmonte would sit up, listen to her story, and take action.

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Why an injection that takes less than a minute had to take 9.5 hours of a senior citizen’s time is the height of callous inefficiency. Dr. Angsioco went armed with what she thought were documents sufficient to get vaccinated—booking form, ID, doctor’s certificate, list of prescriptions, and EZ Consult QR code. She had pens, alcohol spray, a battery pack, fan, coffee, a shawl for sunshade, and all sorts of other papers that might be required. This may appear to be overkill, but it turns out, they were not enough.

There were no instructions on what the vaccination process was going to be. There were a lot of parallel lines for different vaccination categories, and there was a succession of lines per category to go through as one moved closer to actual vaccination. Along the way, there were additional forms to fill out. One had to keep asking if one was in the right line, and what additional requirements there might be. The only people one could ask were the guards who did not know what the process was.

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Inexplicably, the vaccination routine was overstaffed but undermanned. There were too many volunteers loitering around, but there were too few actually engaged in the vaccination procedures. Only two people were taking the blood pressure of hundreds of senior citizens. In the screening sequence, there were only four doctors to attend to 200 seniors waiting in line. There was only one person doing the counseling.

The senior citizens in various forms, sizes, and comorbidities for vaccination were a pitiful, withered sight. There were not enough chairs. There were no queue sequence numbers so one could go out to buy food, water, or go to the comfort room without having to argue yourself back into your place in the queue. The lines were so long and unkempt that they crisscrossed one another. There were no clear signages for the various vaccination stages such as “Taking of Blood Pressure,” “Counseling,” “Screening,” and other stations.

So, is there any excuse for this kind of torture? The whole world has been aware of the pandemic and anticipating the vaccine for over a year now. It is not as if there has been a lack of material time, of facilities like elementary schools, or city personnel and volunteers, or experience in deploying public goods and services, to make this horrible disservice happen. Mayor Belmonte, this can no longer be considered unintended calumny.

It is easy to disregard this incident as an outlier. Is it? What is the average length of time a senior citizen has to wait in line to be vaccinated? At the rate we are vaccinating under distasteful circumstances, when will the vaccination of 70 percent of the population required for herd immunity be achieved?

We should be monitoring not only lagging indicators like how many died today, but also indicators, trends, and patterns showing the reachability of our desired outcomes, like how many people are improving their habits of self-management—staying home, keeping physical distance, keeping masks on, getting vaccinated, and avoiding enclosed public spaces.

Over the past week, the nation was titillated by sensational indicators like the so-called “proof of life” photos of President Duterte. While eyes were on this particular ball, the reality was that other indicators of national well-being continued to deteriorate, without urgent appropriate interventions. This is as surreal as when the Titanic began to sink, and the band played on, grasping at the receding moments of normality.

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