A dose of optimism

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Over the weekend I tried dining in again at one of my favorite fast-food outlets, located within a small shopping complex anchored on a major supermarket. The restaurant is air-conditioned; no al fresco dining option there.

The supermarket was already closed when my mother and I plus two others got there, so most of the other tenant stores were also closed. The four weekends before Christmas are usually peak shopping days, but this time the supermarket closed at 6 p.m.

At least the restaurant allows seniors for dine-in, unlike one of their outlets along Macapagal Boulevard, which requires a quarantine pass. So my mother was let in, our temperatures were scanned and we all filled out the contact tracing forms using my own pen, in the waiting area for takeout orders.

There were a few other groups dining in. Two areas are set aside for groups so they can sit together without distancing. But I didn’t want to be near any of them so we picked two tables with distancing cues and sat apart while we waited for our orders.

After a while, wearing my mask and looking around as we waited, one of the other customers started coughing. I got antsy and finally decided we should just eat at home. So we shifted our order to takeout and went back to the car, slathering our hands and arms (because they touched the tabletop) with 70 percent alcohol.

This is how unpleasant dining in can be in the time of COVID. The aversion to enclosed, air-conditioned public spaces – intriguingly not manifested in supermarkets and hardware stores – has been a bane for many retailers.

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Filipinos are still buying for Christmas. But you can see consumer preference shifting to lower-end items and to outdoor shopping areas or those with natural ventilation. The bargain centers of Divisoria, Quiapo and Dapitan are teeming with shoppers. The outdoor Christmas flea markets and gardening bazaars seem to be doing good business. All the ukay-ukay shops in my neck of the woods have reopened.

Last Saturday I bought trays of uncooked balut, penoy higop and salted egg along C6 Diversion Road (also Laguna Lake Expressway) in Taytay, Rizal. I jostled with a crowd at a curbside fishmonger’s spot to buy giant milkfish or bangus from Laguna de Bay. It was just a pop-up spot, not a stall; the vendors just sat on stools in the open, dumped the fish on the curb and people in cars, motorcycles, bicycles and on foot began buying.

Getting people to return to indoor establishments, dine-in restaurants and retail outlets is a challenge in the time of COVID. Certain personal services such as haircuts and manicure-pedicure are coming back, and I’m glad to see skin clinics and massage spas reopening – even if I’m sticking for now to my massage chair and DIY mud facials.

Restoring consumer confidence will rely on the availability of a COVID vaccine. So it’s terrific news that several reputable pharmaceutical and biotech companies have announced the development of vaccines with unprecedented speed, with the capability to rapidly produce the jabs in large volumes using the ground-breaking messenger RNA biotechnology.

And it’s even more welcome news that the top industrialists in the Philippines are pooling their resources so the country won’t be at the end of the line in the global scramble for access to the vaccines.

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SM’s Tessie Sy-Coson introduced Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion to AstraZeneca, which has developed a vaccine reputed to have 90 percent efficacy together with Oxford University in the UK.

Concepcion is presidential adviser for entrepreneurship, but he worked on the vaccine procurement as a private individual. Together with Sy-Coson, they got other business titans on board; you’ve seen their names in the news reports.

Unlike the government, which is reportedly constrained by procurement laws from committing advance payments to reserve goods or services, the private sector can take a chance on products still in development.

“We were taking a calculated risk,” Concepcion told “The Chiefs” on OneNews last Friday night, just hours after the industrialists signed an agreement with AstraZeneca Philippines and the government, represented by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, for the procurement of 2.6 million doses of the company’s COVID vaccine.

Concepcion issued the statement in response to a setback reported by AstraZeneca on the same day that the tripartite agreement was signed: its third phase clinical trials produced confusing results, with those who received only one and a half doses reacting better to the vaccine than those who received two full doses.

Even an efficacy of 70 percent is still pretty high, Concepcion pointed out, as he expressed confidence that AstraZeneca, with its solid reputation in the pharmaceutical industry, would be able to sort out the test results.

Last August, the European Commission plunked in a hefty down payment of 336 million euros (about $396 million) for 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Earlier this month, the European Union also placed an initial order of 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The United Kingdom itself has secured 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with the rollout expected before this Christmas.

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“Our Filipino people can be assured that we will not be left behind,” Concepcion said at the virtual signing of the tripartite agreement.

Because this is a global public health emergency, AstraZeneca has a zero-profit program for 2021 and has committed to sell the vaccine to the Philippines for just $10 (around P500) for the two required doses per person.

Concepcion said the vaccine, which does not require the super cold storage of the Pfizer vaccine, could be available in the country by May or June next year.

The Department of Finance, on the other hand, estimates the cost of the vaccine at around P1,200 per person. Maybe the DOF has the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in mind. This means the country will need an initial P24 billion to procure vaccines for the initial 20 million priority people, and a total of P73.2 billion for 60 million – about 55 percent of the population.

Concepcion, whose family is in the food and electronics sectors, admits that the business environment remains challenging for everyone – from the micro, small and medium enterprises to the biggest conglomerates. Holiday consumption is worse than expected, he told us.

The business titans are jumpstarting the vaccine procurement, and they have aptly described it as a dose of optimism in these challenging times.

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