One year and six days ago, on March 13, 2020, after several weeks during which the growing number of COVID-19 cases had forced other countries to bar visitors from likely sources of the novel coronavirus such as China, the Duterte administration finally imposed what turned out to be the longest-running lockdown in the world. This was after the Secretary of Health resisted a ban on Chinese visitors (“why single them out?”), and government spokespersons had minimized the threat.
As usual, President Rodrigo Duterte put the former military men in his administration in charge as the number of cases multiplied despite the lockdown and ban on visitors from other COVID-afflicted countries. The police and military arrested people without face masks, erected checkpoints, deployed heavily armed soldiers at key points in cities and countryside, and used other coercive means against the populace with little effect on curbing the rapid increase in the number of cases. They quite probably even helped spread the disease in the country’s prisons by cramming in them those they were arresting for violations of health protocols. Meanwhile, the “pastillas” racket at the Bureau of Immigration, which for P10,000 each allowed tourists and POGO (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators) workers from China to enter the country, undermined the effectivity of the ban on visitors and very likely helped boost the number of the infected. The usual corruption and indifference to the public welfare that afflict much of the bureaucracy were still at work, and at the expense of the health and lives of the populace.
As the number of cases surged enough to put the Philippines ahead of other countries in Southeast Asia; as millions of workers lost their jobs; as schools and businesses ceased operations and even closed permanently; and as the economy spiraled into a recession, apparently at a loss over what to do, Mr. Duterte on a number of occasions declared that only a vaccine could stop the pandemic.
Vaccines have since been developed in Russia, China, the United States, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and India. But the country that for two months last year led all other ASEAN countries in the number of COVID-19 cases is now the last to get, and, in an agonizingly slow process, to administer them.
Without citizens’ being inoculated fast enough and in sufficient numbers, there might as well be no vaccine at all. The Duterte regime has offered all sorts of excuses for the inexcusable delay, with some of its officials blaming the pharmaceutical firms for it. But as the British publication The Economist noted in a Feb. 10 article that was quoted by Philippine media, “Few countries have handled vaccine procurement as shambolically (in as disorganized a manner) as the Philippines.” Translation: government has only itself to blame.
The Department of Health in fact hemmed and hawed for months before it concluded a procurement agreement with Pfizer, a US pharmaceutical firm, apparently because the Duterte regime, rather than welcoming vaccines from whatever source so long as they’re safe and effective, preferred vaccines from China. As early as during his State of the Nation Address in July last year, Mr. Duterte begged President Xi Jinping for the Chinese government, once its laboratories develop a vaccine, to make it immediately available to the Philippines on credit.
China instead donated to the Philippines 600,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine one of its drug firms has developed. The shipment arrived via a Chinese air force plane on Feb. 28, 2021 amid great media fanfare, and voluminous praise for the Chinese government from Philippine officials led by Mr. Duterte himself. It has since been distributed to health workers and some local governments despite initially widespread resistance, which was generally interpreted as due to the antipathy to vaccinations generated by the exaggerated and politicized accounts in 2018 of the supposedly dangerous reactions of some children to the anti-dengue Dengvaxia vaccine.
But it wasn’t so much resistance to vaccinations per se but fears of a particular vaccine’s side effects and awareness of its limited efficacy that were driving health workers’ and other sectors’ hesitation in having themselves inoculated. The reluctance of a majority of the population was due to Sinovac’s reported 50.4% efficacy and its possible side effects to which the news media referred when they reported that some of those inoculated with it had suffered “adverse reactions” — without saying, however, exactly what those side effects were.
Neither did Mr. Duterte’s breaking his earlier promise that he would be the first to be inoculated help generate public confidence in Sinovac.
Nevertheless, health workers and some government employees eventually agreed to be inoculated with Sinovac since, despite assurances from Duterte “vaccine czar” retired General Carlito Galvez, Jr. that Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines would arrive mid-February, by March 1 it was still the only one available.
Some 400,000 plus doses of AstraZeneca did arrive on March 4, but, together with the Sinovac doses, added up to only a little over a million shots, or far, far less than what are needed — 70 million — to achieve herd immunity for the country’s over 100 million population. Not a single Pfizer dose has so far found its way to the Philippines as of March 17. But even if there were enough shots available, at the inoculation rate of 20,000 per day that the Department of Health claims, it will take a decade to meet the 70 million target.
In the midst of the chaos and contradictions in official statements and spur-of-the-moment policies, and despite the arrival of the vaccines, came the resurgence of Philippine COVID-19 cases this month to September 2020 levels at the rate of 3,000 to 4,000 new infections a day, with some experts predicting they could go up to 5,000 to 8,000 daily by the end of March. As usual, government spokespersons are blaming the surge on the citizens, whom they say are in violation of health protocols. But it was the National Government itself that in its less than well-thought-out decision to hasten the recovery of the economy allowed the reopening of cinemas and relaxed the requirements for domestic travel and international tourism despite the objections of local government executives.
The COVID-19 pandemic could not have come to the Philippines at a worse time. It has tested the mettle of leaders and governments across the planet, some of which have proven themselves equal to the tasks of combating the contagion and keeping its impact on the economy and their citizens at a manageable level. But the mess the Philippines is in has only exposed not just the inadequacies of its healthcare system, but also the weaknesses of its State institutions and the intellectual and moral limitations of the bureaucrats who constitute what passes for its leadership.
Those limitations explain why the Philippine power elite is unable to even plan ahead, or to transcend such of its ideological biases as its reliance on the goodwill and approval of a foreign power while risking the displeasure of another despite the obvious imperative during these perilous times to, in the words of the late statesman and Senator Claro M. Recto, “make no enemies where (the Philippines) can make no friends.” The veritable vacuity of the vaccination program has its counterpart in, and is due to, the competency vacuum in government and its indifference to the health, the well-being, and the very lives of the millions it is supposed to serve.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).