[OPINION] Independence from COVID-19

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] Independence from COVID-19
If the vaccination rate will not be improved exponentially, it will take years – yes, years – to meet this target. The country is lagging behind, and at this rate, the gap is expected to widen in the following months.

With the recent surge of COVID-19 cases that led to the reinstatement of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila, Cavite, Rizal, and Laguna, most, if not all Filipinos, turned to vaccines as their remaining fighting chance, which has been branded by the government as the “silver bullet” against the pandemic. However, it does not look good in the vaccination front as well. 

Local governments are actually being very dynamic. In Metro Manila, Quezon City, Pasig, Makati, Marikina, Valenzuela, and Taguig have been stellar in their vaccination programs. Similar successes have been seen in the provinces, even as the current surge has not spared them.

Unfortunately, the national government has struggled to fulfill its main task – to procure the vaccine doses we need to get us to herd immunity. The officials in charge of this mission were humble enough to accept responsibility and have apologized for this failure.

Data shows that as of April 12, 2021, only 1.05 million out of more than 109 million Filipinos, or 0.96% of the population, have been inoculated with at least a single dose of various vaccines against COVID-19. Compared to other similarly situated countries in terms of economy, the Philippines is not performing well. Cambodia vaccinated 6.58% of its population, Sri Lanka is at 4.32% (April 11), Indonesia at 3.76%, and Bangladesh at 3.43%.

Further, in about a month, the Philippines has vaccinated only 0.75% of its population – far from the government-set target of 70% by end of 2021. If the vaccination rate will not be improved exponentially, it will take years – yes, years – to meet this target. The country is lagging behind, and at this rate, the gap is expected to widen in the following months.

Enter the private sector

At around the same time in 2020, we wrote an article, “Business unusual: When the business community responds to a virus,” on the private sector’s response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the form of economic relief and medical infrastructure. A year later, after all that the country had faced, the private sector is once again extending its assistance.

The Philippine business community – led by Enrique Razon, the Ayala Group, Jollibee Foods Corp., Aboitiz Group, DMCI, San Miguel Corp., and Manny Pangilinan, among others – has publicly expressed an intent to initiate vaccination programs for its stakeholders, particularly its employees. Combined, the private sector vaccine commitments are at least 7 million doses thus far.

To contextualize this move, Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala emphasized the significance of private-public partnership in this task: “The strengths of the private sector – its resources, ingenuity, energy and performance management discipline – are crucial to augment the Government’s massive machinery; and even codevelop new ways to deliver critical aid and other forms of support to our stakeholders.”

The private sector, with its experience in supply chain, operations, and logistics management, among others, is more than competent to procure and roll out vaccines.

The enactment of Republic Act No. 11525, or the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021, coupled with the verbal instruction of President Rodrigo Duterte “to allow the private sector to import at will” is a good development. This means, however, that, according to the said law, a tripartite agreement among the private sector, national government, and vaccine supplier is still required, but hopefully only without much delay or red tape.

Symptom of bad governance

With all of us losing something or someone from this ineptitude, it is not difficult to think that the business community, arguably the only sector that has enough economic and social capital to theoretically procure vaccines independently of the government, has decided to take whatever responsibility it can into its own hands.

The business sector procures vaccines not as an enterprise (definitely not for profit), but as a clear sign of leadership and compassion, which the Filipino people definitely long for from their duly-elected government.

While the active role that the private sector has taken seems to be what the Philippines and its people need at this ominous hour, it is a mere symptom of a failing pandemic response and bad governance.

We have been led by this government through a governance of waiting. Filipinos have been told by the government to wait and, here we are, still waiting for mass testing, for clear quarantine guidelines, and for vaccination. We have waited for so long that an action from the private sector seems central to our pandemic response, when in fact, it must only be supplementary to that of the government’s.

As in business, time has cost. Costly, too, are the delay of vaccinations, the surge of new cases, and the overwhelmed hospitals,that sadly result in increased deaths that run into hundreds each day. More than the closure of business establishments or reduction in skeleton workforce, the seemingly unending condolences in our communities is the cost that we bear. The private sector acknowledges that the waiting must end soon or, we stand to terribly lose more.

The competence and goodwill of the Philippine business community can only take us so far, as witnessed in their response last year; it definitely saved a lot of lives. But the failures of the government will still pull its own people down.

Vaccine justice

We echo the call of climate activist Greta Thunberg on vaccine justice, and forward the following action points to be considered by the private sector for its vaccination programs.

We call for genuinely inclusive vaccination. Most corporations announced their plans to provide vaccines, at the very least, for their employees. Some even went to the extent of offering such privilege to families and relatives of their employees.

If we may add, a more inclusive approach in vaccination would include not only their employees in the legal sense and their families, but also those who are engaged by the corporation in various capacities even if they do not qualify as “employees.” These include the legitimately outsourced laborers, seasonal workers, and those with probationary status, among others. Vaccination coverage can even be extended further into supply chains to ensure that business community suppliers of raw or semi-processed materials are protected as well.

We call for a discrimination-free labor policy related to vaccination. While we laud the proactive role of the private sector in procuring vaccines for their employees that answers the problem of access and supply, there is an equally important question of “What happens to employees who refuse to get vaccinated, despite its availability?”

We understand that the goal of corporations is to secure their workforce and prevent any future disruption should there be COVID-19 transmission involving even a single employee. However, should an unvaccinated employee who causes such disruption in a possible future event be held liable, at the expense of his job, just because he refused to be vaccinated earlier? We hope not. This leads us to our third invitation for the private sector below.

We call for a more proactive campaign on improving vaccine confidence. The success of a vaccination program, especially against a communicable disease such as COVID-19, hinge on the sheer number of vaccinated persons in a population. Unfortunately, the Philippines does not enjoy a comfortable rate of vaccine confidence among its population.

According to SWS, only 66% of adult Filipinos are willing to get vaccinated. This is expected to be prevalent as well in the vaccination programs to be implemented by the private sector, which is why active and effective campaigns within their employees and these employees’ communities are essential. 

If the private sector-led vaccination is not merely intended as a shortcut to increasing their productivity and regaining the lost profits caused by the pandemic, but is really about generosity, compassion, and leadership, and partnership, then the private sector must envision – and implement – a vaccination program that is truly just and humane.

While we eagerly wait for the actual vaccination, the country would be one step closer to vaccine justice, when we dedicate our efforts to improving vaccine confidence across all sectors of Philippine society. 

Hopefully, by 2022, on June 12, we would  be able to declare independence from the coronavirus pandemic that has brought only suffering, sickness, and death in our society. –