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Incentives vs civic duty

A Pulse Asia survey early this year noted that 61 percent of Filipinos were not inclined to take any vaccine. In a taped presidential briefing on May 27, Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., who heads the country’s vaccination effort, said about 40 percent of residents from poor communities are hesitant to get immunized. Those are big numbers, and if not addressed properly and urgently, will seriously derail any effort to make the general populace safe from the COVID-19 virus.

With the increasing number of vaccines that are arriving in the country and the ramping up of the vaccination program, local government units (LGUs) have resorted to offering incentives to encourage their constituents to get vaccinated. The incentives range from cash grants to cows, groceries, motorcycles, even house-and-lot packages. The city of San Juan has issued an executive order encouraging businesses to provide incentives to employees and customers who have been vaccinated. The Department of Health has expressed support for these moves as a way to help sway the hesitant.

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Such campaigns to address vaccine hesitancy aren’t limited to the Philippines. Other countries are also resorting to deploying incentives, since getting as many people vaccinated is key to reopening economies safely and getting back on the path to recovery. Countries that have already vaccinated a significant percentage of their population are now faced with the challenge of immunizing the rest of their citizens who are not willing to get a shot. There will certainly be those who will evade being jabbed on point of principle or belief, but those who are merely hesitant must be the subject of serious convincing effort, and in this, incentives can play a major role.

However, is the use of incentives, particularly raffles and lotteries, a good and effective policy for changing the minds of the vaccine-hesitant? Given that vaccination is critical to the lifting of restrictions that have stifled the economy, led to massive job losses, and closed scores of businesses, shouldn’t getting vaccinated be considered the civic duty of citizens? In the same way that people stepped up by coming up with community pantries all across the archipelago to help those badly affected by the pandemic, shouldn’t we exercise responsibility toward our community by getting ourselves vaccinated so that the economy and society can recover?

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The answers to those questions aren’t that cut and dried. Getting vaccinated should be considered the civic duty of all citizens and part of our collective responsibility to the community at large, but imposing that duty also runs counter to people’s basic privacy and health rights. Thus, the grant of incentives may be a workable if short-term solution to convince those who are hesitant. In the midst of an emergency and the race to achieve herd immunity, if it does help change some minds, then it is worth pursuing.

However, from a long-term perspective, local and national governments, civic organizations, and other stakeholders may soon find this avenue unsustainable. How long before LGUs left to fend for themselves run out of goodies to offer? At the most basic level, what should continue are official information drives and education campaigns to reach out to as many people as possible on the importance of getting vaccinated and the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines. This is a more difficult endeavor as it requires sustained engagement from the grassroots level and upwards. And the information campaign to convince people to get vaccinated can’t just approach target audiences with cold numbers and clinical information. It needs to appeal to Filipinos’ hearts and kind nature, to their sense of community, to their sense of love and protection for family membersʍthat getting vaccinated is not only for their own good, but also for the good of their loved ones. That, yes, “no one is safe unless everyone is safe.”

More than dangling carrots before the populace, is that fundamental principle of public health being emphasized in any compelling, convincing way?

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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: coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus vaccines, incentives, vaccine hesitancy
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