Duterte administration

[ANALYSIS] Duterte’s vaccine program is peak incompetence

JC Punongbayan

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[ANALYSIS] Duterte’s vaccine program is peak incompetence

Illustration by DR Castuciano

'More and more Filipinos are asking: Where the hell are the vaccines? What’s taking them so long? Why are we lagging behind?'

Even as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Lao PDR — countries poorer than us — have already started vaccinating their people, vaccines (those not smuggled, at any rate) have yet to arrive on Philippine shores.

Heck, Indonesia is already starting the 2nd phase of its mass vaccination, but we can’t even pin down a date for the arrival of the 1st wave of vaccines here. 

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr said vaguely that vaccines would arrive by mid-February, and one newspaper even mistakenly announced an exact date (February 14). Government has conducted vaccination rehearsals left and right, with much media coverage. Everything seems picture perfect — save for the absent vaccines themselves.

More and more Filipinos are asking: Where the hell are the vaccines? What’s taking them so long? Why are we lagging behind?

The deeper you look into this, the nastier the big picture that emerges. It all boils down to the sheer and gross incompetence of the Duterte administration. 

This vaccination program might just go down in history as one of the most shambolic responses to the crisis. 

Too slow in securing vaccines

Let’s start with the Duterte government’s staggering lack of urgency. 

As early as June 2020, Pfizer had already reached out to the Philippine government. But it was only in October or about 4 months later that a key document (the confidentiality data agreement) was signed.

Ranking government officials said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III dilly-dallied and ultimately “dropped the ball” on this deal, which would have enabled the shipment of 10 million vaccine doses as early as January this year.

The priority all along were the Chinese vaccines: Duterte proclaimed that the country would get its first COVID-19 vaccines from China, even vowing to get the country back to normal by the end of 2020. China promised to prioritize the Philippines once they were ready to sell.

Despite the hype built around them, the 25 million doses of Chinese vaccines secured so far are still nowhere to be found. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t even approved the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Sinovac because the vaccine maker has yet to complete the required documents.

In the past couple of months, the Duterte government was already in talks with many other suppliers, namely:

  • COVAX global facility: 44 million doses
  • Novavax: 30 million doses
  • Pfizer-BioNTech: 25 million doses
  • Moderna: 20 million doses
  • AstraZeneca: 17 million doses
  • Gamaleya: 10-15 million doses
  • Johnson & Johnson (Janssen Pharmaceutica): 5 million doses

Commitments (“term sheets”) have already been signed with some of them. But these term sheets are only the second-to-last step in the vaccine negotiations. To date, no definite supply agreements have yet been signed.

Cramming an indemnification law

Only very recently did Galvez divulge that some vaccine manufacturers are requiring the Philippine government to set aside an indemnification fund and a law authorizing it.

This fund — which will be tapped in the event that people vaccinated against COVID-19 will fall ill and file charges — effectively inoculates the manufacturers from any legal liability.

The problem is that the Duterte government has yet to pass a law authorizing such an indemnification fund. Lawmakers had failed to anticipate it and allocate any money for it in the 2021 national budget. 

Said Senate Finance Committee Chair Sonny Angara, no one informed lawmakers that such a fund was one of the requirements, “otherwise, [Congress] would have put a fund on that.”

Did other poorer countries prepare for this but not us? At any rate, it betrays the Duterte government’s lack of complete staff work.

For his part, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said that Congress needs to pass a law for the government to tap its Contingent Fund. This is inaccurate: government needs no such law. 

The Contingent Fund, which is already part of the 2021 General Appropriations Act, can be tapped to fund unforeseen expenses of government. To be used, the Contingent Fund needs only the authorization of the President.

Although Congress failed to allocate a specific amount for indemnification in the 2021 Budget, the Contingent Fund can easily be used as a source without any need for legislation. As its name suggests, it is meant to fund, well, contingencies. 

This misleading statement by the Budget Secretary himself only masks the real issue: the failure of our government’s vaccine negotiators to inform Congress ahead of time about the need for an indemnification law. The fund source is not the problem; the absence of an indemnification law is. 

Only yesterday did the President certify as urgent the indemnification bills. Congress needs to act fast. Government is already way behind schedule, and the dream of vaccinating 70 million Filipinos by the end of 2021 — overambitious as it already is — is looking more and more impossible.

Besides the lack of an indemnification fund, another sign of government’s poor planning is the paltry P2.5-billion vaccine budget that Duterte initially submitted to Congress. That should be enough if government wanted to inoculate only 1% of the population. 

Congress remedied this by allocating P70 billion under the Unprogrammed Fund, but the final vaccine budget is still too small for comfort. (READ: In 2021 budget, Duterte funds dubious infra projects, not vaccines)

Ghost of Duterte’s Dengvaxia scare

Vaccine manufacturers may also be requiring indemnification because of the country’s needlessly traumatic experience with Dengvaxia.

If you recall, Duterte and his minions, partly out of political vendetta, associated the Dengvaxia vaccine with the deaths of children inoculated with it during the previous administration. Charges were filed left and right despite the lack of conclusive evidence that Dengvaxia caused all those deaths. 

The media hype centering on Dengvaxia shattered public confidence in other vaccines, and as a result millions of parents didn’t have their kids inoculated against diseases like measles and polio. Outbreaks of these diseases erupted nationwide, and vaccine hesitancy skyrocketed. (READ: Dengvaxia scare: How viral rumors caused outbreaks)

Heightened vaccine hesitancy can ultimately prove to be the biggest roadblock in Duterte’s COVID-19 vaccination program. No matter how many doses government secures, and no matter how effective those vaccines are, they’re useless if people won’t take the jab. 

A January 2021 survey by Pulse Asia showed that only about a third of Filipinos are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly half would refuse it, and about a fifth are undecided.

Government aims to inoculate about 70% of Filipinos. But with so many people still unwilling to be vaccinated, the vaccination program looks all but doomed. In other countries where vaccine hesitancy is also rife, analysts suggest paying people to get vaccinated.

Had Duterte not stoked the public’s fear of vaccines years back, a larger proportion of Filipinos would probably be more open to the COVID-19 vaccines today.

No vaccines, no reopening of economy

Finally, despite the yawning absence of vaccines, the Duterte government — particularly his economic managers — are pushing to reopen the economy more aggressively than ever.

NEDA Acting Secretary Karl Chua in particular is pushing for the nationwide imposition of the least restrictive quarantine mode (called modified general community quarantine or MGCQ) by March. Metro Manila’s mayors have reportedly agreed with this proposal, but the vote was almost evenly split.

Among other things, Chua is also pushing for young kids and more seniors to go out of their homes, as well as 75% rather than 50% occupancy in buses and jeepneys. The IATF has also allowed as of February 15 the reopening of cinemas, arcades, parks, and meeting/conference venues.

Health experts are understandably up in arms, since this economic policy almost certainly means a higher risk of outbreaks in coming weeks and months.

Chua says the main reason for this reopening is “to mitigate sickness, hunger, poverty, [and] job and income loss that are arising from non-COVID-19 cases.” But this is misleading for two reasons.

First, it draws attention away from the fact that government has miserably failed to provide enough economic aid and relief to Filipinos, stemming from an unreasonable policy of austerity. (READ: Filipinos are in misery, but why is Duterte slashing economic aid?)

Second, if the economic managers hadn’t noticed, the economy has been all but totally open for quite some time now. Yet many Filipinos have not trooped back to malls and restaurants, or returned to their shopping habits, precisely because they’re still afraid of the virus. 

In the US, rigorous research showed that states which reopened earlier than others failed to see a huge increase in spending by private households and individuals, due to a continuing lack of consumer confidence.

With mass vaccination not even starting yet, Duterte’s economic managers and their delusional plans are becoming a real and direct threat to Filipinos’ health and lives. 

There’s a reason firefighters don’t simply walk away from a burning building until it’s declared “fire out.” – Rappler.com

The authors are former government workers. Their views are independent of the views of their affiliations.

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.