Why Nayong Pilipino?
A choice between trees and people: This was how vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF) framed the conflict between the Nayong Pilipino Foundation (NPF) and the private International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI) Foundation, which has offered to build a mega vaccination site on reclaimed land in NPF’s Parañaque grounds. It was “inappropriate for the NPF to equate the fate of 500 ipil-ipil trees with the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Filipinos,” said Galvez.
Billionaire Enrique Razon Jr.’s ICTSI Foundation had touted the facility as designed to vaccinate as many as 10,000 to 12,000 people a day or about 300,000 a month, which would help the government achieve faster herd immunity for the population. The normal capacity of vaccination sites set up by the NTF in different localities is 5,000 vaccinations a day.
But, citing legal obstacles about a private entity using public land, as well as the project’s impact on the bird sanctuary and urban forest on NPF grounds, Nayong Pilipino’s executive director, lawyer Lucille Karen Malilong Isberto, refused to sign the memorandum of agreement (MOA) that would have started construction, and resigned her post. The NPF warned that, “The abrupt cutting of close to 500 trees and other site works on the NPF property will kill the existing ecosystem… (that would) take decades to recover. (This) would be a disaster and a disservice to the residents of Metro Manila who need more green and open spaces.”
On Saturday, Razon lashed out at Isberto with a few choice words, “idiot” and “highly suspicious” among them. “We are in the midst of our biggest crisis ever with people dying, and they want a park instead of a vaccination center!!! Incomprehensible!!!,” the ports and gaming tycoon said in a statement sent to this paper. There are no trees to be cut on the property, he added, describing the ipil-ipil trees on the grounds as “weeds.”
The administration has likewise chastised the NPF and said the project will push through, with the MOA to be signed “very soon.”
Notwithstanding that official imprimatur, questions and objections by various quarters linger, the common theme being: “Why waste time and resources building a new site when the pandemic has rendered several huge government facilities idle and unused?”
Wasn’t it Galvez himself who said “we can no longer afford to waste time”? Even with Razon’s projection that the mega vaccination site would be finished in time for the arrival of more vaccines next month, that’s still a whole month of waiting. Why not opt for immediate vaccine rollout using already existing structures, like the Philippine International Convention Center, the Cultural Center complex, the Folk Arts Theater, the Quirino Grandstand, and the Rizal Memorial Stadium, all of which are also more accessible to public transport?
Green groups have called out the “false choice” the government and the project’s proponents are presenting, which pits people’s welfare against the environment. The proposed site is a rare patch of green and wildlife in the metro; the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines said it has documented at least 177 birds from 25 different species in just two hours of monitoring in the urban forest.
Even the numbers from the LGU vaccination sites sound better. Multiply 5,000 vaccinees a day by the number of local vaccination sites—13 cities and municipalities in Metro Manila alone: That would be 65,000 a day or 1,950,000 vaccinations a month, much higher than the projected 300,000 of the mega vaccination site. That’s not even taking into account the 3,500 vaccination sites currently in use. And, more vaccination sites spread out will prevent the mass gathering of 10,000 to 12,000 vaccinees at any one time in one area.
Per presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, the mega facility to be built will only be “makeshift,” not permanent, consisting of tents. Razon’s line is that a special facility needs to be built because the vaccines coming in, specifically Moderna, require “very special handling.” “You cannot just spread out these vaccines all over the place because of the special temperature requirements and the special handling,” he said in a TV interview.
Razon has led the private sector’s efforts to acquire Moderna vaccines for the country, and so this project, at no expense to the government, seems more than laudable. But it still begs the question: Why in Nayong Pilipino specifically? Why not in the aforementioned other public spaces that are already vacant, open, and ready for quick occupancy at this time, and, more critically, wouldn’t have to involve the wholesale decimation of trees? What makes Nayong Pilipino singularly conducive to vaccine cold storage that it would obviate the possibility of that urgent facility being built somewhere else?
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