Beg, borrow, not steal

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - November 23, 2020 - 12:00am

Beggars can’t be choosers. But that is too demeaning for an independent, sovereign state like the Philippines to admit. We may not be a very well endowed country economically but we Filipinos are very much rich, that is culturally, individually in another way. Our Spanish colonizers call it as “amor propio,” or roughly translated as self-esteem. For short, ego.

At this stage though, the only way our country can get enough supply for many Filipinos of the much sought after vaccine against the deadly coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is short of begging. There is no shame to it if this could secure our country’s guaranteed access to the life-saving vaccine to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

This great task is taken upon himself by President Rodrigo Duterte who has raised the need of the Philippines for COVID-19 vaccine before his fellow heads of states in two successive international fora he attended one after the other. With fellow heads of states and government leaders, President Duterte participated via video-conferencing online amid the continuing global spread of the COVID-19 contagion.

The latest one was the meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member-economies chaired this year by Malaysia. Speaking at the 27th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting last Friday night, President Duterte urged his fellow APEC leaders to see to it that everyone has access to the vaccine amid the ensuing competition and marketing of this panacea to the pandemic.

“We have to ensure the unimpeded flow of medical supplies and technologies, especially COVID-19 vaccines,” President Duterte told fellow leaders of the 21 member-economies of APEC. “We have to defeat the virus everywhere, or no one is safe. To do this, we need to strengthen partnerships to make vaccines a global public good,” the Chief Executive exhorted.

Chaired this year by Vietnam, President Duterte issued the same call during the 37th meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Leaders’ Summit held last Nov. 12 to 15. The Philippine leader underscored the need for the ten-member states of the ASEAN to sustain the campaign against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in this part of the world. Almost all the ASEAN member-states are also part of the APEC.

As a regional bloc, he rallied the ASEAN to work as one in dealing with COVID-19. “We must work together to ensure that all nations – rich or poor – will have access to safe vaccines. No one is safe until all of us are safe,” President Duterte pointed out. As dialog partner of the ASEAN, President Duterte asked the US government to contribute to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.

As far as the Philippines is concerned, President Duterte mentioned pursuing three modes to acquire the anti-COVID vaccines, namely, government-to-government agreement; multilateral cooperation; and tripartite agreements between the government, the private sector and multilateral financial institutions. “There is no other way. Let us resolve to act decisively on universal vaccine access and maximize these mechanisms,” the President pleaded.

Initially, the Philippines participated in the COVID-19 vaccines “solidarity clinical trials” under the World Health Organization (WHO). And recently, the Philippines joined the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. The Philippines is eligible under the COVAX system – which involves pooled procurement by philanthropists, international non-governmental organizations and other groups for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine once licensed and approved – because the country has a low middle income classification and has signified its intention to be part of the system.

The President made these impassioned appeals and representions at the APEC and ASEAN one after the other as the bigger and rich countries like the United States (Pfizer and Moderna); the United Kingdom (Astra Zeneca); Russia (Gamaleya’s Sputnik 5); China (Sinovac); India (Novavax); to name some that have already developed their own antidotes while the likes of Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Japan have placed and pre-paid for large orders of anti-COVID vaccines.

Given these stark realities, the Chief Executive abandoned his original objection to pay in advance the anti-COVID-19 vaccine maker.

As the father of the nation, President Duterte had to eat the humble pie to save as many Filipinos from COVID-19.

On the recommendations of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID), President Duterte approved advance payments for the vaccine – which is required by some drugmakers and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI-COVAX) Facility, which the Philippines is participating in – and his agreement to issue an executive order for its emergency use.

Designated as the “vaccine czar” and chief implementor of the country’s COVID-19 response, Carlito Galvez Jr. announced last week that 17 vaccine manufacturers worldwide are interested to have some form of “arrangement” with the Philippines for their potential vaccines against COVID-19. According to Galvez, five of these companies are already part of the GAVI-COVAX Facility, a mechanism that was designed to guarantee “rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.” The COVAX Facility guarantees 20% of the Philippine population can be supplied with the vaccine.

Apart from the P10-billion provided for in the Bayanihan 2 Act, the government is borrowing $300 million to fund the procurement for COVID-19 vaccines. The government is also working closely with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and local private firms to procure the vaccines for the Philippines and provision of cold storage chains for its transport.

While they are still crafting the proposed 2021 budget bill, our leaders of the 18th Congress must fill the gap of funds to carry out the inoculation for the first batch of designated people to get COVID-19 vaccine. Beg and borrow, if they must, but stealing is not an option.

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