From vaccines to vaccinations

Leonora Aquino-Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - January 21, 2021 - 12:00am

There has been a lot of talk about the procurement of vaccines. Are the vaccines safe? Which ones are more effective and cheaper? Have they been tested well enough to suit the Filipino or Asian physique? Recently, the talks shifted to the smuggled vaccines that were given to the presidential security guards and to thousands of Chinese in the country, without the proper authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. All these while many of our neighboring countries have either procured the vaccines or have rolled out their vaccination programs.

In spite of these controversies, a large part of our population eagerly await the vaccines. Meanwhile, many have become complacent, daring to go to crowded places, even for non-essential reasons. Worse, we see more people wearing masks the wrong way and physical distancing has become more negotiable.

We all know that the spread of the virus will not stop when the vaccines enter our borders. The government has announced its intention to buy enough vaccines from various companies to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the population, a percentage prescribed by the World Health Organization to achieve herd immunity against the virus.

So while we spend so much time debating and deciding, how is the country getting ready for an effective, fair and fast vaccination program? Many mayors have announced their plans to directly procure vaccines through a tripartite agreement with the pharmaceutical company and the national government. Are we going to have a “to-each-his-own” approach again (kanya-kanyang diskarte)?

We should try to learn both from the best practices and the mistakes made in the early months of the pandemic. We’ve seen many “hits-and-misses” and we wondered if there was someone in the driver’s seat. Commentators pinned the problem on the lack of an effective communication strategy. Lately, I’ve been hearing again the need for communications for the vaccine rollout.

But is communication really the problem? In my view, even if we have the smartest communication team at work, guided by the best communication strategy, we could not expect a fair, fast and effective vaccination program unless we have a smart operations strategy, led by a decisive and non-political leader highly respected by the people. With so many decision-makers representing economic, health and political interests from both national and local governments, the program would need a master orchestrator. We need an honest leader with a servant’s heart and a strategic mind, someone who’s always on top of the situation. He or she is proactive and leads the operations and communications aspects of the vaccination program guided by scientific data and relevant information culled from regular monitoring and evaluation.

The communication strategy should be drawn and implemented as soon as possible, as we all wait for the vaccines. Two goals should guide this strategy. The first goal is to unify the various agencies and personalities involved so we have a coherent message and a coherent approach. This is for internal purposes. The government cannot communicate externally what it does not have internally. If there is disagreement and decisions are left hanging, that will be the message externally. For example, do we have a logistical plan and adequate manpower for freezing, storing, transporting and injecting the vaccines? If there is no clear plan for this, it will be extremely difficult to develop a strategic communication strategy for external audiences. This communication strategy, if agreed upon by all the internal stakeholders, should aim for one goal: to ensure fast, safe and fair delivery of the vaccines to at least 77 million Filipinos. There will surely be hurdles because, according to surveys, around half of the Philippine population are not willing to be vaccinated.

Creative tools and tactics using traditional and social media can be rolled out to improve knowledge and change attitudes but only if there is consistency and integrity in communications. A credible opinion leader in every barangay can be tapped as an “ambassador” of the vaccination program. I know we have creative civil servants working in communications, so implementation is the easiest part of the communications strategy. But they need to be empowered through a work environment that enables them to be creative and honest in their work and makes them appreciate their role in the country’s vaccination program. Our operational staff and policymakers should see to it that they succeed. Their work will be more challenging, if not impossible, if the vaccination program will be undermined by corruption, favoritism and inefficiency. In such a scenario, the blame will be on the lack of communications again.

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Leonora Aquino-Gonzales teaches at the College of Mass Communications, University of the Philippines.

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