‘Do the math’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - January 27, 2021 - 12:00am

The Senate Committee of the Whole’s “inquiry in aid of legislation” on the government’s vaccination program wrapped up its third and last marathon public hearing last week. Hopefully, this would produce pertinent legislative bills to beef up the country’s fight against the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contagion. No less than the Department of Health (DOH) is asking both chambers of the 18th Congress to legislate vaccine-related laws to ensure the success of the country’s COVID-19 response.

One of which is a proposed indemnification fund to shoulder the costs of “adverse events” due to the government’s free vaccination program. This is to indemnify vaccinees who might develop serious side effects after getting the anti-COVID jabs. DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III recommended this possible piece of legislation to provide this budget to pay for the costs of risks involved in any vaccine trials. Duque is the chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) in charge of the government’s anti-COVID responses.

The Philippine government targets to vaccinate up to 70 million people, or two-thirds of the population to achieve the so-called “herd immunity.” Government authorities earlier announced the initial batch of vaccine doses would arrive one after the other starting next month. This include Sinovac and Sinopharma from China; Pfizer and the Moderna from the United States (US); the AstraZeneca from the United Kingdom (UK); and the Sputnik-V from Gamaleya Institute of Russia, among the menu of vaccines in the government’s procurement program.

But these anti-COVID vaccines are all still under phase 3 of clinical trials that received the emergency use authorization (EUA) from either the World Health Organization (WHO), or from their respective countries’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Also, Duque raised a proposed legislation to embed into the country’s statutes that would automatically authorize the government to issue EUA in cases of unexpected public health emergency crisis such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At present, our own FDA was temporarily empowered to issue EUA to vaccine candidates under Executive Order (EO) 121. President Rodrigo Duterte signed EO 121 on Dec.2 last year, invoking his previous Proclamation that placed the entire country under a public health emergency following the outbreak of the COVID-19 contagion.

“There are many evolving pieces of legislation that can ensure the successful response of the national government against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Duque pointed out. “When it comes to vaccination, we have a lot of laws that need to pass,” he cited. Duque likewise identified the need for a legislation to grant tax exemptions on vaccine imports.

Intended to help the government keep track of every Filipino’s record of inoculations against COVID-19 infection, Senators Pia Cayetano and Grace Poe filed separate bills as urgent legislative measures that the 18th Congress must pass into law to complement the government’s vaccination program.

Cayetano filed Senate Bill (SB) No. 1999 or the “Vaccine Passport Program Act,” which seeks to provide a vaccine passport to all Filipinos. Poe filed SB 1994, or “An Act Providing for a Vaccine or Immunization Passport for COVID-19 and other Emerging or Re-emerging Infectious Diseases.”

“The idea of vaccine passports, alongside the rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccination, has recently gained traction in international circles. Countries such as Denmark, Greece, and Israel have all started to take steps in this direction,” Poe cited in the explanatory note of her Senate bill.

Two weeks ago, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire announced the government plan to use “vaccination passport” that will certify its holder had already been immunized against COVID-19 and shall be regarded as part of official travel document in the Philippines. Vergeire believes a “vaccination passport” may soon become an international requirement for cross-country travels under the new normal spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Poe rightly noted with concern the reported contraction of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) since the outbreak last year. “One of the reasons for our GDP slump is the reduction in household spending due to fear of infection and the imposition of community quarantine protocols,” Poe pointed out. Poe cited data from the Google Mobility Report showing strong evidence that Filipinos continue to stay at home for fear of getting COVID-19 infection, resulting to reduced activities of 33% in workplaces; 46% in transit stations; and 35% in retail and recreation.

“Thus, easing community quarantine and raising consumer confidence are central to our economic recovery,” Poe urged.

National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) “acting” Secretary Karl Kendric Chua earlier reported household spending dwindled by minus 15.5% in the 2nd quarter and minus 9.3% in the 3rd quarter last year. With our consumption-driven economy, Chua admitted, GDP slumped by minus 16.5% in the 2nd quarter and minus 11.5% in the 3rd quarter last year.

Presidential adviser on flagship projects and designated “testing czar Vivencio “Vince” Dizon reaffirmed these economic woes due to the COVID pandemic during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last week. This is why, Dizon explained, they have agreed to gradually relax the quarantine restrictions “to balance” the health risks of the pandemic and the economic wellbeing of the entire country affecting all of us Filipinos.

But President Duterte junked anew the IATF’s policy recommendation to gradually ease current age quarantine restrictions Monday night. With mass vaccination still not rolling out yet and the more transmissible UK variant of COVID-19 is now here in our country, the President sees no urgency to heal the equally moribund Philippine economy.

Meantime, prices of basic goods from vegetable, pork and other meat products continue to soar amid low supply in the markets. To quote last week’s quip of Dizon: “Do the math.”

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