From the time COVID-19 hit our shores in December 2019 until the prolonged lockdowns were enforced in March 2020—even up to this day with different nomenclatures—government officials in all task forces created for the pandemic keep bungling in their planning (if any is being done) and execution of programs.
The mistakes keep piling up simply because the government officials involved are simply too proud to ask the help of experts in epidemiology and vaccination programs (including involving the private sector in the execution of the vaccine rollouts). If some would volunteer, the officials make sure to keep the volunteer at a distance and his voice inaudible (especially with media) or they just throw him/her out for disagreeing with their plans/ways/agenda. This is what they did to OCTA Research Group of the UP—when it announced prematurely that the country’s cases could hit a million without mass testing, contact tracing, vaccines, and quarantine and isolation facilities. Then they also threw out Dr. Tony Leachon, a former task force member, who quit because he displeased two Cabinet men in the task forces when he revealed the gaps in the government’s response measures.
The pandemic, it seemed, was not too critical for them to even act at the initial stages on how to source the vital protective equipment (PPEs, face masks), RT-PCR test kits, ventilators, alcohol, hand hygiene, Xrays and others that the private sector was forced to move in to save the healthcare system from collapse—which by then saw too many doctors, nurses and lab technicians being downed like dominos by the unseen enemy—SarSCov2 that caused COVID-19.
Hospital beds were in short supply and there were no rooms to accommodate the surging COVID-19 cases that again, the private sector was first to step in to save the situation from hitting the worst.
Then just as countries were busy mapping up sources of vaccines in June last year—contracting from home-based and global suppliers of the vital vials—our task forces did not see the urgency to join the frenzy for vaccines relying instead on the generosity and kind-heart of our friend, China, for whatever it can donate to us. Yet the funds needed for such vaccine imports were already being readied by the legislative so that the country can bid for as much vaccine as it could afford.
December came in, there were just announcements in media that supplies would come from all over, but no such orders were placed and paid in advance for to ensure their speedy arrival.
The COVID-19 Immunization Program Management Organizational Structure was formed on October 26, 2020 to facilitate the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the Philippines but was replaced by a vaccine cluster within the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) on November 6, with Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. (a retired general) designated as vaccine czar, the same day thePhilippine National Vaccination Program and Implementation Plan was approved.
When 2021 stepped in, still no vaccine orders, just announcements. Then the talks as to how the vaccines would be stored and rolled out once they come in began. Discussions on priority groups to be inoculated started and where the local governments can come in. But then nothing much happened outside of talks.
It took a long while for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to seven COVID-19 vaccines (in chronological order): Pfizer–BioNTech, Oxford–AstraZeneca, Sinovac, Sputnik V, Janssen, Covaxin, and Moderna. There are eight other vaccines on order for the program, at varying stages of development.
Surprisingly in August or September 2020, around 200 members of the Presidential Security Group got inoculated for Sinovac—with no one aware of how it got into the country and who ordered it and at what price. Considering it was not even issued an EUA by FDA nor an import clearance from the Bureau of Customs, the people naturally criticized the mystery around it and the preferential treatment given to PSG.
The national government planned to rollout its vaccination program around February expecting the delivery of vaccines from Pfizer sourced from the COVAX facility and the first batch of Sinovac's vaccines, consisting of 50,000 doses. The delivery of Pfizer's vaccines was delayed due to documentary issues. Still there was nothing clear as to when the supplies will come in, or if the government had ordered and paid for such orders at all.Still dependence on free China vaccines—which fortunately came in with 600,000 doses-- became the only hope for the country.
In the interim, there were news reports that some celebrities and influential persons had obtained their vaccines (with no disclosures of where and when) which further strained the government’s relations with the people already anxious of the spiraling infections (nearing the million mark) and the near collapse of the healthcare system.
Even when the priority lines were drawn, cases of jumping the line had been reported and this worried those who were in grave risk (healthcare frontliners, those securing the checkpoints and those in service delivery) of being bumped out of the priority list.
The government’s vaccine rollout took place on March 1 of Sinovac with Philippine General Hospital Director Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, FDA Director General Eric Domingo, MMDA Chief Benhur Abalos, Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr., and Dr. Edsel Salvana of the DOH Technical Advisory Group. Testing czar Vince Dizon was the second to receive the vaccine at TALA Hospital after its Director Fritz Famaran was inoculated.
At the background of Legaspi (while being inoculated) were the least- liked and publicly- disdained politicians as promoters Spokesman Harry Roque and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III (whose series of bungles have all but led to the distrust of the people for this administration).
At the very least, what this government should have done was tap the popularity of showbiz personalities and respected celebrities to promote vaccines and get the people’s trust into them. (To cite an example of the drawing power of celebrities, Angel Locsin last April 23, celebrated her birthday by putting up a community pantry that drew such a huge crowd that worried local and national officials no end.
I have a colleague who at first would not like to get the Sinovac vaccine but after seeing the Ayala Corp. top honcho falling in line (in an Ayala-owned venue) to get Sinovac (when the company ordered a lot of Moderna or AstraZeneca which had yet to arrive), he was so convinced to have one. “If a man like Zobel would fall in line for Sinovac because he would like to protect himself with whatever is available, so why not I.” This is a classic case of a credible endorser’s drawing power.
The government should have also focused more its vaccine rollout in the NCR Plus area, which was the epicenter of COVID-19 instead of sending the supplies to other least-infected areas. Now it finds itself in a situation where it is afraid that some vaccines might expire because many of those in the priority list are either: a) refusing to be vaccinated or b) prefer to have western vaccines than Sinovac.
This was clearly demonstrated when Pfizer vaccines were dispensed with in a Manila hotel and thousands queued for it when there were only 300 doses available.
A dear friend, Chito Macapagal, shared that using the drawing power of celebrities—rather than politicians—could have led to less vaccine hesitancy and could have propelled the government’s vaccination program.
Now at a measly 5 percent vaccine availment, the government has all but shelved its goal of herd immunity and re-termed it to population protection. Aside from reducing its inoculation target of 70 million Filipinos to just half or 60 percent of 108 million Filipinos, the DoH is dropping its goal of herd immunity which entails continuous protection.
Now infections have exploded outside the NCR plus including Visayas and Mindanao (particularly Davao). NCR is not yet recovering completely. So we have really not achieved anything but are continuously bungling our plans and their executions.