In PH, Vaccination Not Immune to Grave Irregularities

From Duque’s ineptitude, to Duterte’s preferential treatment, as well as the PSG’s secret vaccination, issues already abound surrounding vaccination in the country.

Like many other facets of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the country, vaccination was not spared from the irregularities and potentially corrupt practices that came into public knowledge in recent weeks. This includes Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr.’s revelation that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III “dropped the ball” by missing simple yet crucial requirements to acquire vaccines from the United States, the smuggling of vaccines to the Philippines without approval from the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the preferential treatment to inoculate government officials ahead of everyone else.

On December 21, 2020, Locsin confirmed that accountability fell on Duque after Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe’’ Romualdez successfully negotiated for Pfizer to send vaccines to the country in January 2021. Duque apparently failed to accomplish some necessary documents, particularly the confidential disclosure agreement, in order for the deal to push through. This revelation came a week after the government disclosed that the country will procure Sinovac’s Coronavac instead, a vaccine without late-stage clinical trial results or peer-reviewed data.

Later that month, it was also revealed how a select few received special vaccinations for COVID-19, even ahead of frontliners. Included are some Philippine soldiers, a cabinet member, and members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG). PSG commander Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III confirmed this, but said that it was necessary in order to protect Pres. Rodrigo Duterte from the novel coronavirus. He also shielded the president from liability and said that Duterte was not informed of the vaccination and was only told “after the fact.” Expectedly, Duterte coddled this obvious misstep and instead lauded the security personnel’s illegal vaccination scheme.

The vaccine, however, merited no approval nor endorsement from the country’s health department or the FDA. Durante said that they did not consult the DOH or inform the public simply because only a few PSG officers were inoculated and it was not a massive vaccination. Durante also withheld the source of the vaccine from the public, but Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque hinted that the vaccine uses traditional vaccine technology. Duterte compounded the issue by stating that almost all soldiers have already been injected with a vaccine by Sinopharm. Durante neither confirmed nor denied this pronouncement, adding to the public’s confusion regarding the matter.

In the end, Durante and his men only gained Duterte’s pat on the back and have been spared from liability by the palace and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The FDA, bending at Duterte’s behest, has also said that they can grant special vaccine permits amid the controversy, though such permits cannot be applied retroactively. The senate, however, is set to begin investigation regarding the matter next week — the result of which may lead to nothing but a show, as Duterte has already assured his men that they will be protected at all cost.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, on the other hand, continuously dismisses the inoculation of VIPs as a non-issue. For Roque, the vaccine is “without much value” — a downright falsehood, as a vaccine would spare countless lives from the virus and hence is a much needed commodity especially in this time of a pandemic. Furthermore, his dismissal of the issue overlooks the violation of the provisions of Republic Act. No 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, seeing how the vaccines were distributed to a select few members of the government as a token — like a “birthday cake,” as Roque said. This was seconded by Local and Interior Government Secretary Eduardo Año, who said that the government did not violate any law as what is prohibited is the “selling and distribution [of food and drugs] without regulatory approval.” Journalists, however, have been intently pushing back on this gaslighting to get clearer answers, only to be shut down again and again by the palace.

With the growing public dissatisfaction on the government’s vaccination plan, Duterte has commanded the acquisition of vaccines from suppliers in another country. “No vaccine, no stay here” were the president’s words as he threatened the US with once again terminating the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) should they fail to deliver COVID-19 vaccines. This is an odd move from the palace, for they had already used the same bargaining chip earlier this year after the White House tightened its grip around the country’s neck due to Duterte’s brutal drug war. The threat was not realized, and the palace backpedaled and extended the agreement for another six months. Similarly ironic is how it was the PH government that was at fault for bungling the vaccination deal with the US due to Duque’s ineptitude. With the Philippines having to rely on such a hollow threat, and with a Democrat set to become the next US president, the relationship between the two countries suffers further strain. At this point, however, the burden falls squarely on the diplomatic abilities of Sec. Locsin and Amb. Romualdez who have to walk back into the negotiating table and cut a hefty deal.

What should be clear is that the vaccine is not the sole saving grace amid this pandemic. As proven by countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and New Zealand, it is entirely possible to contain the spread of the virus through the basic tenets of test, trace, and treat. It was Duterte who confidently assured the country in July that we will have a vaccine by December 2020, only to prove that when he said “we,” he only meant his closest aids. Vaccination, of course, remains crucial in ending the pandemic. In the country, it has merited about PHP 72.5 billion in allocation in the 2021 national budget. A chunk of it, however, will go to Chinese-led developers, with whom vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. already cut a deal with.

These issues no longer come as a surprise to many, but are still nonetheless enraging. For an administration that has messed up the simplest of protocols — from mass testing, contact tracing, to holding high-ranking officials liable for blatant violations — irregularities in the vaccine row simply add to the pile. Additionally, these events testify to the immense privilege those within Duterte’s circle continue to enjoy.

This also shows the mental gymnastics officials like Durante, Roque, and Año are willing to engage in to change the course of conversation and salvage public opinion. They are also willing to shed themselves of any ounce of honor by continuously giving misleading and evasive answers in order to prop up a façade of unity in the administration. Duque’s incompetence and shameful neglect of his sworn duty as a health professional, physician, and the country’s Secretary of Health in the recent vaccine row also further amplifies his role in endangering the lives of millions of Filipinos. More importantly, Duterte and his administration are no longer hiding their reddened hands and instead are waving them proudly and valiantly as they claw their way up, all while their constituents sink in despair.

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