COVID-19

[ANALYSIS] Where is Duterte’s proper vaccine budget, plan?

JC Punongbayan
[ANALYSIS] Where is Duterte’s proper vaccine budget, plan?

D.R. Castuciano

Assuming (conservatively) that a dose will cost about P500, P2.5 billion will buy just 5 million doses. That’s less than 5% of the country’s total population, and definitely not enough for herd immunity to kick in.

This is what we get from a president who doesn’t know how to plan.

Several months into the pandemic, many countries worldwide have successfully suppressed the spread of COVID-19.

But here in the Philippines, the pandemic rages on. More than 300,000 Filipinos have been infected, and thousands of new cases continue to be reported daily. On October 1, the Philippines even made it to the top 20 countries worldwide with the most number of cases.

If you listen to President Rodrigo Duterte and his men, you might think the only solution to the health crisis is to learn to live with the virus, reopen the economy as soon as possible, and just wait for the vaccine.

But this defeatist strategy is highly misleading. Even without a vaccine, many other countries have in fact successfully stopped COVID-19 in its tracks. The World Health Organization itself has enjoined governments to put in the work and not just wait for the vaccine.

Moreover, for all the stock Duterte is putting on the vaccine, he’s not preparing for it nearly enough. The budget he proposed for it next year is just P2.5 billion. That’s so pitifully small it almost seems like a joke. (READ: In Duterte’s 2021 budget, Filipinos are on their own)

Fighting without a vaccine

In a recent report by The Lancet, 6 of our 9 ASEAN neighbors – namely Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia – made it to the top 10 countries worldwide that successfully combated the virus.

The Philippines ranked 66th.

How come many other countries – some way poorer than us – are fighting the pandemic much more successfully?

Colossal health budgets aren’t even necessary. As reported by The Lancet, other countries controlled the pandemic by banking on their respective experiences with past outbreaks, as well as “rigorous management, professionalism, and social trust.” In short, good governance.

Vietnam’s case is particularly notable if not enviable. We have roughly the same population and level of prosperity as they do, yet our respective epidemic curves couldn’t be more dissimilar (see graph below).

By meeting the pandemic head-on, Vietnam averted not just a health catastrophe, but also an economic one. (READ: Had Duterte acted earlier, PH economy would be safe to open by now)

Instead of driving down new cases to zero, Duterte and his men would rather just reopen the economy hastily.

Government is relaxing quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila this October, eyeing staycations, the full reopening of businesses, and the lifting of curfews. The least restrictive quarantine measure – called modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) – might also be imposed in November.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque claimed that reopening the economy will guarantee a lower hunger rate, which disturbingly skyrocketed in September to a record high of 7.6 million (or 1 in 3 Filipino) households.

But with new COVID-19 cases still in the thousands daily, reopening continues to be risky.

In some instances, government itself has worsened, rather than abated, local transmission with programs and policies that induce rather than prevent congregations (think of the abortive and ill-conceived opening of the “Manila Bay Sands”).

If there’s anyone to blame for our collective inability to reopen our economy fully and confidently, it’s the Duterte government itself – by its own inaction and ineptitude.

Pitiful vaccine budget

Duterte is also proposing a P2.5 billion budget for the vaccine next year. That’s peanuts.

First, the Department of Health already said it needs at least P12.9 billion for the vaccine. Although that amount sounds like an underestimate, it’s already more than fivefold the vaccine budget proposed by Duterte for 2021.

Sure, there are stand-by funds for the vaccine in Bayanihan 2, but these will be valid only until end of 2020.

Second, the vaccines could be potentially expensive.

Various vaccines are undergoing late-stage clinical trials now, and price estimates have begun to surface. Moderna’s vaccine might cost $32 to $37 a dose. Pfizer’s might cost P19.50 a dose. Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline’s could be as cheap as $10.50 a dose.

Assuming (conservatively) that a dose will cost about P500, P2.5 billion will buy just 5 million doses. That’s less than 5% of the country’s total population, and definitely not enough for herd immunity to kick in.

This also assumes one dose will do the trick. If a person needs at least two doses, then only 2.5 million Filipinos will be vaccinated next year.

When asked about this unbelievably paltry vaccine budget, the Palace said they’re banking on the private sector’s contributions, too. But the private sector alone won’t produce nearly enough vaccines, let alone hand them out to all Filipinos freely. Government ought to step in and foot the entire bill.

Where from?

Until now we don’t even know where the vaccines will be coming from.

Duterte is stubbornly refusing to line up and reserve vaccine orders from key manufacturers. Instead, Duterte is pinning his hopes on the goodwill of China and Russia.

He’s even volunteering Filipinos to take the initial wave of Russian vaccines, which haven’t yet completed clinical trials and pose serious health risks. China, by the way, has recklessly gone ahead with its own mass vaccination program despite unfinished trials.

We can’t rely on the generosity of governments that are only too willing to bypass safety and ethical guidelines. As early as now, the Duterte government must allocate sufficient funds for the procurement and mass distribution of the vaccines.

Otherwise, vaccines won’t be available for most Filipinos until late 2021 – or even well into 2022 or 2023.

The government might also want to support local vaccine production. Indonesia is trying to produce its own vaccine in anticipation of the acute global shortage later on.

In April, Duterte did offer P10 million to Filipinos who can come up with a vaccine, later raising his bounty to P50 million. But these amounts only betray Duterte’s ignorance about the mammoth resource requirements of vaccine R&D.

Pay people to get vaccinated

Finally, there’s vaccine hesitancy: Even when a safe, reliable COVID-19 vaccine comes out, will Filipinos want to be vaccinated?

Owing to the lies and mud hurled at Dengvaxia in recent years, vaccine hesitancy has risen considerably in the Philippines. This has caused misplaced fears in the use of legitimate vaccines and, consequently, outbreaks of measles and polio nationwide. (READ: Dengvaxia scare: How viral rumors caused outbreaks)

To counter vaccine hesitancy, some suggest that government might have to pay people to get themselves vaccinated. But this, too, will require careful plans and tremendous funds. And neither is forthcoming as far as Duterte is concerned.

Duterte did say he wants vaccination to be done at police stations and that the poor, as well as the military and the police, will be prioritized.

But we need a comprehensive, evidence-based vaccination plan – not just off-the-cuff remarks issued during his late night ramblings.

If Duterte doesn’t take the vaccine seriously, we’re all doomed. The health and economic crises will be needlessly prolonged, and we may well be one of the last nations to eradicate the virus. – Rappler.com

The author is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

JC Punongbayan

JC Punongbayan, PhD is a senior lecturer at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.