Economic health iffy without vaccines

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2021 - 12:00am

The country’s economic managers are getting pretty nervous about the economy’s health. They almost bullied the members of the task force responsible for managing our COVID response into agreeing to practically lift quarantine by March 1.

But President Duterte was not convinced. He knew that because his boys dropped the ball on vaccine availability, he couldn’t risk lifting quarantine restrictions now. He is right. A spike in the number of cases will force him to close down again and that will look awful.

But delay in the shift to MGCQ, one analyst observed, puts at risk the 6.5 to 7.5 percent GDP target for 2021, and the more ambitious eight to 10 percent target for 2022. No choice. The country’s recovery story has to wait for vaccines to arrive and get on people’s arms.

As of now, no supply contracts for the vaccines have been signed. Congress has yet to pass a law that will create an indemnity fund to cover costs of those who may get adverse effects from the vaccine, as well as hold the manufacturers free from any liability.

There is also another big problem that officials have hardly discussed. A recent study by the Department of the Interior and Local Government showed that in Metro Manila, only three out of 10 residents were willing to be vaccinated.

Perhaps, the low regard for the Chinese vaccine, which Duterte seems to be forcing on the people, is one reason for the hesitancy. The other is the Dengvaxia experience, which sharply reduced the trust of people in vaccines in general.

This calls for a massive information drive to convince people to take their jabs when the vaccines arrive. But the government’s information machinery lacks credibility. It is also busy promoting charter change and other irrelevant things.

Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral told a media interviewer that the government “could have done more in communicating to the people why we are doing the things we are doing, and what we should be doing for ourselves.

“They say they have done the best that they can and I cannot question that … all we have to do is look at the results if you compare them with other countries.”

The Philippines ranked 79th out of 98 countries in a “COVID Performance Index” released by Australia’s Lowy Institute last month, scoring just 30.9 out of a possible 100 points based on the number of cases, deaths and tests.

A former Duterte Cabinet member thinks the administration’s fault lies in being late in everything related to its COVID response. Former socioeconomic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia, who resigned in April, expressed his frustration over how slow the government has been in tackling the pandemic.

“We should have attended to this as early as February like Vietnam. We started in March. I think the discomfort of the people is that we are always late. It’s really slow. Late and slow motion,” Pernia said.

JJ Atencio, an affordable property developer, had this to say:

“For recovery to start in 2021, a few things need to happen. A successful vaccination program would provide the needed optimism for businesses to resume and start thinking about expanding, increasing supply, and employment while providing the certainty and competitive pricing that will increase consumption spending.”

Thus, no vaccine, no easing of the quarantine restrictions… slow economic revival. In the stock market, delays in vaccine arrivals and inflation fears continue to weigh heavy on the negative sentiment.

Can the Duterte administration remarkably improve its performance? Not likely with the same people, based on what has happened so far.

But it is easy to understand the anxiety of the economic managers.

Acting NEDA Director General Karl Chua pointed out that quarantine restrictions since March last year have caused a total income loss of P1.04 trillion or P2.8 billion per day, which translates to an average annual income loss of P23,000 per worker. The impact on the income and livelihood of other workers is worse, he said.

“Kailangan po natin mag-shift sana sa lalong madaling panahon to MGCQ for the entire Philippines, sana starting March 1, 2021 para i-address po ‘yung hunger or yung mataas na antas ng mga Filipino po na nagugutom,” he said during the Cabinet’s weekly briefing with President Duterte.

In a text message to me last Tuesday, former Cebu City mayor Tommy Osmeña analyzed the country’s problems on our COVID response:

“Why is the Philippines lagging behind in the fight against COVID? We are focused on the wrong priorities. We need the vaccines NOW. This is like going to war without ammunition! With all the talent at the government’s disposal, we still have no vaccines.

“And if we do, we don’t have any convincing roadmap to distribute it efficiently, timely, and with utmost transparency.

“I suggest letting the mayors plan their own distribution. Yes, the mayors know how to mobilize their own human resources in their town… more than a national bureaucrat or so-called CZAR. A soldier knows his foxhole better than a general at HQ.

“Then we can compare who has the best plan and formulate different options based on the output of a thousand local mayors.

“Perhaps NOW is the time for mayors and even barangay captains to identify local residents who are qualified to inoculate (doctors, nurses and medical technicians). They should be recruited now and organized as mini-task force or cells assigned to specific barangays.

“They can discuss the best way to distribute, quantify the beneficiaries and prioritize the same. Then they can prepare a schedule with less guesswork. And don’t forget that each should have a PPE.

“Are we going to do all these on a last- minute basis? The answer to that is YES. That’s why we will continue to lag behind.”

Mayor Tommy has a good point about the need to plan how to efficiently vaccinate 70 million Filipinos. If IATF and General Galvez have such a plan ready, they are keeping it a secret.

They must involve the private sector, specially on the logistics strategy. In the end, the private companies will prove most efficient. Government must let them help.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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