"They are not absolutely empowered like a czar ought to be. They are more like coordinators."
There is something so awesome about being appointed “czar.” It matters not whether you are called a testing czar, a contact tracing czar, a treatment czar, and now a vaccine czar, as proposed by Sen. Ralph Recto.
The term is derived from the Russian “tsar”, whose last, Nikolai II, along with his Tsarina Alexandra and entire family, was executed by the revolutionaries at Yekaterinaburg to where they fled from the capital in St. Petersburg. The tsar was an absolute ruler, emperor of all the Russian states bordered by the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, all the way across the Siberian snow, to Vladivostok in the Pacific Sea.
But is a “czar” in the Philippine context one equipped with the powers to do whatever must be done, and quickly, whose word and actions are final and executory insofar as his defined responsibilities are concerned?
Unfortunately not in the Philippines.
I have no quarrel with what Senator Ralph proposed, one of the brilliant minds of the Senate, and for whom I will vote once again come 2022 when he is up for re-election. Having a vaccine czar has become imperative, because the department which is supposed to be in charge of fighting the pandemic, whether in terms of prevention, contagion-minimization, or treatment, is the Department of Health, which, as I have gotten tired of writing in this space, has miserably failed in its job.
All right, all right, nobody and most every other country in the world never knew this COVID-19 was coming, and therefore, everyone was unprepared. Presidential spox Harry Roque says we are even doing better than countries like the US of A. True, but then they are led by an insane president. We are not.
As soon as news of the strange Wuhan virus spread out, we dilly-dallied on closing our air and sea borders. Having the advantage of being an island nation, we lost that advantage when we did not close down until the first week of February, and even then, allowed planes filled with Chinese tourists already here to roam around. Nanghihinayang sa gagastahin ng turista.
We took so long to order PPEs and other equipment to protect our frontliners, resulting in needless deaths and contamination. We disdained at first the use of face masks and DOH advised only those who were feeling symptoms to use face masks. Okay, okay, there was a lack of medical grade, whole cloth masks, even if Taiwanese manufacturers in Bataan were among the largest, but then again, we could have mobilized garment makers to fashion face coverings similar to what they are doing now, a bit late in the day.
We just sat on our hunches, content to tell everyone that we only had three and then 10 infected patients until the middle of March, when the contagion had become so widespread that the President had no choice other than to impose a strict lockdown, and repeated the lockdowns until the economy became so crippled that it will take more than a year to just wobble along.
That was when we appointed “czars” like Vince Dizon for testing and test centers, and spox Harry keeps telling us how many millions we have already tested, and how the private sector and our LGU officials have been helping Vince come up with more testing centers. Bravo!
We appointed Mayor Benjie Magalong to replicate his contact tracing networks in Baguio City to the rest of the country, something we could have done from the very beginning, if we only had a national ID that is still “in the making” two years after we finally passed Ping Lacson’s advocacy since 2001.
We uprooted the very good Dr. Bong Vega from Davao City’s Southern Philippines Medical Center to oversee hospital operations for COVID-19 patients, and we have been able to control the number of deaths despite huge, increasing numbers of coronavirus afflictions, competing only with Indonesia which has two and a half times our population, for the worst COVID-19 performer in all of Southeast Asia.
Our three czars are doing well enough, given their limitations. But there is a systemic fault they all have to cope up with: They are not absolutely empowered like a czar ought to be. They are more like coordinators, rather than czars.
Because at the end of the day, the real “tsar” is still the DOH and it’s secretary, Pingkoy Duque, who likewise chairs the IATF, our central coordinating task force to combat the COVID.
And what has the DOH done about preparing for the vaccine, other than giving the green light for some pharma companies in some countries to test-try their developing vaccines among our population? Okay, okay, we cannot compete with the rich countries who have advanced billions to the pharma companies for research and development, pronto, so they could get first crack at the vaccines once ready for distribution.
Us? We are in the waiting line, partly hoping Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will put a premium on new friendship over gold and their own “nationalism” as in “kami muna, siempre”.
Now, Senators Francis Tolentino and Recto worry that DOH has not yet put any orders for the cold chain facilities needed to keep the vaccines in tip-top condition, especially in a tropical country like ours. The sad fact is, even if we are to use our ice cream makers and their freezers, or the few cold storage facilities we have for food mostly, the temperatures these operate with are anywhere between -25 to -30 degrees Celsius.
And almost all the vaccines being developed require sub-Arctic temperatures --- minus 80 degrees Celsius.
I have been to Harbin in the height of their winter, where the temperature of -24 was similar to being inside a walk-in freezer. Can you imagine -80 degrees?
So to the question of whether DOH is prepared or not, at this point in time: Usec Vergeire was saying they “will coordinate” with the Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC). “Will” rather than “have.” And “have” should have been months ago, when the President himself said he had talked with Xi and Putin, and Secretary Dominguez said they were talking to Pfizer.
Sen. Recto is right --- we need a “czar” for vaccine procurement, logistics, storage and distribution. We needed that months ago.
Why do I keep thinking this virus will be with us until all of next year?
And speaking of “czars”, we also needed some kind of a czar when we had to rush preparations for the SEA games. We were without any sports facilities worth a major event when President Duterte came in on July 01, 2016.
So we asked guys like then newly-appointed DFA Sec. Alan Cayetano to rush the preparations, for otherwise it would be a national embarrassment. Alan used his go-to guy, his action man, Vince Dizon, CEO of BCDA which owned the New Clark City, to rush things up. This despite the fact that the overworked Dizon also had to coordinate the Build, Build, Build projects, and rush a spanking new airport in Clark, which is practically finished (in record time) but for the ribbon-cutting.
Now, after a highly successful SEA Games hosting, after ramping up our Covid testing capabilities, on top of being Flagship Projects Secretary, the overworked Dizon is being excoriated for taking “short-cuts” in making sure the world-class SEA Games facilities up on time.
Yet several months ago, Vince Dizon was “boy wonder”!
O tempora, o mores!