FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 21, 2021 - 12:00am

Government is negotiating to procure 148 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. But, being a high profile process, politicians seem to want to get in the act.

If the procurement process was a stew, there seems to be so many fingers dipped in the broth: passing disinformation, speculating irresponsibly on possible kickbacks, making statements they hardly understand about comparative efficacy.

The politicians are not just looking over the shoulder of those tasked with negotiating the vaccine purchases. They are making their preferences public, commenting on the data from the trials still ongoing, passing around intrigue and guessing the prices of the goods to be produced.

The sort of political spectacle that surrounded the vaccine procurement process is probably unique in the world. In most other countries, the procurement is undertaken by the responsible agencies away from the political stage. The experts, not the politicians, are entrusted with the process.

Hereabouts, we even had the spectacle of a Senate hearing long before the first vial of vaccine has been successfully procured. It is not coincidental that those presumed to be running for reelection appear to grab the most speaking time about the procurement process. The vaccine producers surely did not expect they would be negotiating for a purchase in the middle of a carnival.

In the business world, it is normal that parties to a negotiation forge a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This is to ensure the negotiations are not distracted unnecessarily. In our case, the senators even want to hold an executive session to gain information about the price offers. That negates the NDA and threatens to bring chaos into the negotiations.

Sec. Carlito Galvez, the official in charge of procuring the vaccines, already warned that the negotiations could be compromised by the political noise. That will not dissuade our politicians, of course.

Various polls show that only about a quarter of our population is ready to submit to vaccination. The rest is suffering from what is called “vaccine hesitancy” – a reluctance to accept the vaccine for fear of side effects or just plainly out of distrust.

The hesitation, in our case, is likely reinforced with the controversy over Dengvaxia. Just a few days ago, after the ombudsman dropped all charges against the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), the agency said they would continue to pursue the link between the dengue vaccine and the death of a number of children.

Already laboring under the fears created by the Dengvaxia episode, the politicization of the procurement process is not helping diminish public hesitation towards the COVID-19 vaccines. It is tempting to imagine that a “public education campaign” might improve receptivity to the vaccines. But the task is actually more complex than that.

Brownie points

Expect politicians gunning for elective posts next year to try and raise their profile and collect brownie points by playing the populist sides of current issues. That is par for the course.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, however, seems to be overplaying the old trapo game – misinforming the public in the process.

Last week, the former partner of actor-turned-politician figured in social media putting out photos of her two young children sweating and in the dark because her electricity was disconnected. She was not complaining about high power charges. She was complaining about the delay in child support – including, apparently, paying household bills promptly.

Hontiveros seized on this viral showbiz event, cynically using it as a platform to raise her visibility in the new media. She clamored for the (indefinite) extension of the No Disconnection policy and ranted about high power rates. In doing so, she treaded on fake news.

First, the ERC-endorsed No Disconnection policy ended last month. Meralco, on its own volition, extended this only for lifeline users (consumers using less than 200 kwh a month). The Meralco bill featured in the viral post is certainly way above the extension coverage. At any rate, the issue there was about spousal responsibilities and not power charges.

Second, notwithstanding this month’s slight increase, our consumers are enjoying the lowest power charges in three years. These charges might have even been lower were it not for the Feed-in Tariffs arbitrarily imposed on all consumers but benefitting only the businesses of renewable energy investors. Hontiveros might have been more edifying taking on the issue of these tariffs which are external to the cost structure of power even as they affect price levels.

Third, Meralco has not increased its distribution charges in three years and charges among the lowest power rates in the country due to strategic allocation of its power supply contracts. Distribution charges account for less than 20 percent of the total amount billed consumers.

As the distribution utility, however, Meralco collects for the rest of the power industry as reflected in the generation and transmission charges. Meralco also collects value added taxation on behalf of government and “universal charges” prescribed by existing energy policies. Included here are the Feed-in Tariffs. All these merely pass through the distribution utility.

The cost structure of the power sector is a dynamic one, influenced by such things as the cost of fuel and the exchange rate. Extending the No Disconnection policy will not make electricity cheaper. It will only encourage bills to accumulate and become more difficult to settle. It is unsustainable.

Sure, Hontiveros can try and accumulate popularity points by riding on whatever the controversy of the day is. But as a senator, she is also expected to be reasonable and responsible in leading public discussions on policy.

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