Moving on

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 6, 2021 - 12:00am

Awkward… on the same day that the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines vowed transparency and formed a 10-member team to probe the hush-hush inoculation way back in September of members of the Presidential Security Group, the commander-in-chief himself announced that, hell, no, PSG members won’t go to any such probe.

Take that, Senate committee of the whole. And take that, Department of Justice, National Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Customs.

PSG chief Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III, with impressive cult-level loyalty to President Duterte, could be on his way to replacing that meddling AFP chief who formed the 10-member probe team, Gen. Gilbert Gapay.

Why, Durante might even replace Delfin Lorenzana as defense secretary. Lorenzana had described the vaccine used – identified by President Duterte himself as the Chinese government’s Sinopharm – as “smuggled.”

After all, Debold Sinas was promoted to the top of the Philippine National Police despite his well-attended birthday mañanita last year. Now he’s enforcing COVID protocols against large gatherings, and telling naggers about the mañanita to “move on.”

Duterte has clearly moved on. And he surely wants the Senate, the AFP and the nation to move on as well from the PSG vaccination… or else.

Yesterday, the AFP dropped its intended probe.

The Senate refused to move on, despite some senators warning of the futility of grilling an official protected by executive privilege. The Bureau of Customs also said it would continue to investigate vaccine smuggling. And the Food and Drug Administration insisted on its mandate and protocols for vaccine approval and use.

*      *      *

A casualty of this secrecy involving Chinese vaccines is the government’s COVID inoculation program, which at the outset seemed to be heavily reliant on the 25 million jabs committed by Beijing.

It’s still unclear if the Chinese vaccines are being donated by Beijing, as it has done in several developing countries. If it’s a donation, we need clarity on any quid pro quo even as we thank Beijing for the help.

Even before the pandemic, there was already resistance bordering on hysteria to vaccines, thanks to the controversy over the anti-dengue shot Dengvaxia.

With the pandemic, people have become more aware of the importance of good health to lives and livelihoods. If you’re sick, you can’t work, and you go hungry. Your kids might be forced to sell their lewd photos online to pay for gadgets and internet service needed for distance learning.

Worldwide, health authorities are grappling with vaccine hesitancy and skepticism. To promote trust in vaccines, heads of government and celebrities are getting themselves inoculated in public. In the US, three former presidents plus the incoming one and his running mate have received their shots. The incumbent, busy trying to rig the poll results and reverse his defeat, is a COVID survivor and probably believes he has already achieved immunity.

Vaccine hesitancy is also being reported in our country. This makes transparency in the vaccination program of utmost importance to gain public trust, particularly with the Duterte administration’s seeming predilection for anything made in China, from the Wuhan virus to its vaccine.

Instead what we have is the PSG getting the first shots – of what brand and from where, they’ve now been sworn to omerta. We still don’t know who’s the Cabinet member who got the same shot, and it’s unclear if the President also received the jab.

*      *      *

It’s not surprising that certain local government executives, citing the preferences expressed by their constituents across all income levels, have said they want only Western vaccines.

Makati Mayor Abby Binay, when asked if she would accept Chinese-made vaccines, gave an unequivocal no – because, she explained, her constituents don’t want it. The city government of Makati has set aside P1 billion and pre-ordered vaccines made by US firms Pfizer and Moderna and the UK’s AstraZeneca, with the reservation coursed through the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez.

Navotas Mayor Toby Tiangco, whose city does not have the wealth of Makati, says they can allot from P20 million to P80 million, and jokes that he might ask for vaccine funds from Abby Binay.

Facing “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s OneNews last Monday, Tiangco told us that he conducted an informal survey from Dec. 21 to Jan. 3 among Navotas residents, to determine attitudes toward free COVID vaccination.

Last year Navotas had softened Dengvaxia-fueled vaccine aversion by conducting a free mass inoculation against the flu.

The results of the survey, with around 6,000 residents participating, showed that 18 percent wanted to be vaccinated, 17.9 didn’t, and a high 64.1 percent replied that “it depends” on the brand. The follow-up question was brand preference.

Here’s the reply, which the IATF might want to note, since it could reflect attitudes in Metro Manila, epicenter of the pandemic: 84.2 percent want Pfizer; 6.1 percent, Moderna; 3.8 percent, AstraZeneca; 3.5 percent, Russia’s Sputnik V; 1.2 percent, China’s Sinovac; 0.8 percent, Novavax of US, and 0.4 percent, China’s Sinopharm.

*      *      *

That Monday night rant of the President against those who are going after the PSG did not help improve public trust in vaccines without the approval of Western regulators.

In his weekly address, the nation got a glimpse of what Duterte thinks of the position entrusted to him by the people. Addressing the Senate, he made it clear he would not allow the PSG to face any investigation on their vaccination: “It’s bad for you? Sorry, I don’t care. It’s bad for the country? Maybe.”

The law is what Duterte says it is; the rules are what he says they are. Why is he gagging the PSG chief? Because he can.

With 18 more months left in his term, we might see more of this grand display of the hubris of power.

Unless the Senate and others refuse to move on.

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