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Unrequited love

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - April 16, 2021 - 12:00am

As we already know, having been promised billions of dollars of loans and investments, President Duterte has avoided words and actions that could hurt, in his own words, the “feelings” of China’s leader.  Clearly, he treasures his rapport with President Xi Jinping and is banking on that for China to deliver its promises.

But with barely a year left in his term in office, this looks more and more like a pipe dream. If the hope for Chinese economic largesse never materializes, he may end up “being played for a fool and not even know it” as observed by Karl Jackson, a C.V. Starr distinguished professor at John Hopkins. By expressly saying he does not intend to vigorously press the PCA arbitral ruling, that we do not want to go to a war that we would lose, and pivoting away from our traditional ally the United States, President Duterte has stripped himself of any bargaining chip and placed himself at the mercy of Xi Jinping.

The consequences of surrendering the West Philippine Sea to Chinese control would be enormous for the Philippines. From an economic standpoint, the Philippines would lose its traditional fishing grounds and its access to potentially enormous gas and oil resources. Strategically, the Philippines would become the most vulnerable of the island chains that stands in the way of China’s access to the Pacific Ocean. And China can have its way without firing a shot. Hillary Clinton said in a recent interview she fears the Philippines becoming a subject of China either through financial dependency or its leaders being co-opted.

But it is not yet too late for the President to reverse this disastrous and rather naive course he has chosen to take. He could take a page from his counterparts in Indonesia and Vietnam. In my last column I shared how Indonesia’s Jokowi has skillfully balanced the competing interests of gaining economic benefits from China and strategic support from the US. The Vietnamese have never been afraid to take on China and they have just bolstered their capability by acquiring more military hardware, of which a large proportion was sourced from Israel, fortifying the islands they control and getting the backing of the Quad – The United States, India, Japan and Australia.

China’s latest incursion provides the President the opportunity to reverse course. He should expressly support and encourage the vigorous responses made by his defense and foreign secretaries. He should convene the National Security Council to develop a measured response to the immediate threat and a long-term course of action. He should stop equivocating on the VFA and restart negotiations. He should make an effort to get into the Quad equation – particularly with Japan and India. ASEAN is inutile at this point. It would be more useful to explore joint actions with Indonesia and Vietnam.

Unless he acts decisively now, President Duterte’s unrequited love for China may yet come back to haunt him and secure a prominent place for him in the history of infamy.

Where art thou vaccine?

As of April 6, the country has received 2,525,600 doses of vaccines, of which 922,898 have been administered. Of the total doses, 64 percent or 872,213 received the first dose, while 3.7 percent or 50,685 have completed two doses.

Even with the rollout of the vaccination program that officially began on March 1 to frontline health workers of those from priority list A1, followed by inoculation of the elderly/seniors (A2) and vulnerable sectors/persons with comorbidities (A3), the Philippine vaccination program is hindered by delays and public distrust. We have yet to even finish inoculation of the 1.7M healthcare workers that were originally targeted for March 2020.

As one reader observed: “I see many people getting vaccinated on social media and among friends of friends. Some are not eligible, but are getting shots. The administration said they’ll investigate, but I have yet to hear of anyone sanctioned.” The WHO warned that the country stands to lose 44 million doses of donated vaccines if the priority list is not followed.

There are also reports of delayed deliveries and mishandled vaccines to local government units (LGUs). Some vaccines had temperature excursions and these were put to waste as refrigerators and storage facilities did not meet standards.

As noted by The World Bank in its East Asia and Pacific Economic Update report for April, the Philippines was “lagging behind” in the region in mass vaccination and there were “concerns about efficacy and safety” of the vaccines in the Philippines.

There is, however, some progress in several LGUs on vaccine administration. For example, I understand Bataan has utilized 96 percent of vaccine doses delivered to them, while Aklan and Agusan del Sur administered 86 percent.

The LGUs have critical roles in the implementation of the vaccination program, from establishing vaccination operations center, logistics and advocacy, community engagement, and social mobilization.

Effective implementation depends on how LGUs address vaccine hesitancy and convince constituents, especially those from hard-to-reach areas to get their jabs at the vaccination centers.

Vaccine czar Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr. targets to secure up to 148 million doses which could vaccinate 70 million Filipinos, with two doses per person.

The country’s supply is expecting a significant boost as the private sector has been allowed to obtain vaccines for their workforce who are considered economic frontliners and are important to jumpstart the economy. But it has to be a tripartite agreement involving government, the private sector and the supplier – and that adds another layer of red tape.

The national government has targeted achieving herd immunity – having a large part of the population in an area immune to a disease – by the end of 2021. Experts tell me that to reach this, one million people should be vaccinated weekly from April to May and two million weekly from June to July, and three million to five million weekly from August to December.

This will be daunting, but perhaps with Sec. Galvez at the helm not an impossibility. Galvez has been the target of criticisms on all fronts, yet he seems one of the few who keeps the government’s pandemic response moving.

We hope that the NTF, DOH, DILG and LGUs will all be on the same page.

CHINA PRESIDENT DUTERTE
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