"The question of public acceptability lingers."
The conflicting statements and reports being issued by administration officials on the government’s Covid-19 vaccination program is turning this critically needed and, yes, much heralded effort to get the country back on its feet into a Dengvaxia crisis. It may be even worse and certainly more unforgivable than the highly condemnable last-minute operation mounted by the PNoy administration injecting more than 800,000 Filipinos with the haphazardly tested, clinically deficient, and not to mention overpriced anti-dengue Dengvaxia vaccine.
I say worse and more unforgivable because the brouhaha now engulfing the COVID-19 vaccine roll out could have been avoided. In fact, it should have been avoided at all costs. There was really no reason for people to suspect that something fishy was going on at all—until word got around that a number of other countries apart from the US, UK and China where the five vaccines were being produced, were already getting or about to get their fair share of those vaccines.
Asked what’s happening, the DoH and IATF could only utter some non-sequitur statements to justify the seeming delay in procuring the vaccines. The public was about to accept the labored explanations (which were actually gibberish) until Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddyboy Locsin and Ambassador Babes Romualdez revealed that there was already a 10 million-dose commitment from Pfizer as early as October last year, but that “somebody dropped the ball.” Everybody knew that it was Health Secretary Francisco Duque III who dropped the ball as he has been wont in doing so with the high handed manner and questionable measures he had been inflicting on the public as IATF Chair from the start of the pandemic. No amount of explanation could erase the impression that we were in for another round of missed opportunities and this time with deadlier consequences. After all, the global rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine at the soonest possible time has been touted as the single most critical antidote to the immeasurable damage the world has been experiencing for almost a year now.
But instead of calming the waters and enhancing public confidence in our own ability to have the vaccine rollout undertaken in the safest, most efficient and fastest manner after that initial hiccup, Duque and company have been embroiled in one controversy after another with their topsy-turvy handling of this critical initiative.
Up to now, General Carlito Galvez, the vaccine czar, has yet to provide a clear and verifiable idea of how the roll out is coming along. What are the terms of engagement? How many and what vaccines have been issued emergency use authorization (EUA) and ready to be procured? How much will each vaccine cost? How will these be stored, distributed and injected? Are the facilities and personnel ready for such a rollout? Who will be in the priority list aside from the frontline workers? What areas (provinces, cities, municipalities, etc) will be given priority? What sectors? What are the obligations of each and every recipient sector or area? What about the private sector—are they obliged to provide for their own employees?
If so, how are they supposed to get hold of the vaccines? These and other questions need to be fully and publicly answered now to ensure that those mandated to participate in implementing the roll out program will be ready to do so and the individual recipients prepared to go along.
I am sure that General Galvez, being honed in military training and discipline, has already drawn up a detailed roll out plan. The problem is Secretary Duque and other officials like Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque seem to have their own ideas and they debate among themselves in public, giving the impression that the roll out program is in disarray. To say that the process has been very muddled and confusing is to put things mildly. We are now witnessing a doubling, even tripling, of our fears, anxieties and concerns than PNoy’s earlier Dengvaxia moment.
And like that moment in the not-so-distant future, we are also faced with an acceptance challenge. For even as all of the key issues have been cleared to the satisfaction of all concerned, the question of public acceptability lingers. A lot of our people remain wary, even fearful, about getting vaccinated. They continue to question the efficacy and side effects of the vaccines exacerbated no less by the inability of these officials to explain the science involved. Then, of course, there is the outsized ruckus over the unalloyed preference for the Sinovac jab which has yet to be cleared out up until now.
If not arrested in time, that hesitation to be vaccinated may sink the rollout program beyond repair. Like the Dengvaxia crisis earlier which ultimately led to court cases and failure of the rollout, this may turn out to be the biggest challenge to getting things on the mend and to moving forward. That problem is not unique in the Philippines though so it will do us well if we can learn the lessons from other countries.
In an article written by Katherine Hao in the MIT Technical Review magazine, it was gathered that from the survey data analyzed by the Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi Lab, a known flu forecasting hub, more than a quarter of the US population would not want to be vaccinated even if the vaccine were available today. The study showed that the acceptability rate varied from state to state thus, requiring more and better education and information campaigns to get people to understand the facts and the need for the vaccine to be rolled out in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
Which is why we urge our officials to come out clean and transparent, get the facts on the table and start a vigorous campaign to get the public to understand the criticality of this rollout. If mistakes and misinformation have been done, apologize. If preparations have been inadequate, they must say so and resolve these soonest. The earlier, the better. Otherwise, letting the issues and concerns linger will only add up to continuing public skepticism, even downright dissatisfaction. This can only prolong the damage wrought by the pandemic and move the country even nearer the abyss. That will truly be tragic.