Jumping the line

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 26, 2021 - 12:00am

With the China-made Sinovac jab, there was strong vaccine hesitancy in the Philippines. So it was understandable (and in fact recommended) that government officials lead by example and take the shot in public first.

This they did, on orders of President Duterte: vaccine czar Carlito Galvez took the shot, and so did COVID testing czar Vince Dizon and Chairman Benhur Abalos Jr. of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

Health Secretary Francisco Duque, being a senior citizen, couldn’t take Sinovac’s CoronaVac, which isn’t being used on seniors even in China (as pointed out by our Food and Drug Administration).

What really boosted public confidence, however, was the sight of doctors in the COVID referral hospitals taking CoronaVac, with the idea that the best vaccine is whatever’s available.

After those widely publicized vaccination of doctors, nurses and other health frontliners in Metro Manila, epicenter of the pandemic, there was little need for more confidence-building by local government officials.

There is even less reason if the jab is the one made by British-Swedish pharma AstraZeneca and Oxford University, one of just three COVID vaccines (together with the Pfizer-BioNTech shot and Serum Institute of India’s Covishield) approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for global rollout.

The only AstraZeneca shots currently available at this time in our country are the 525,600 donated under the COVAX Facility put together by the WHO. And continued access to the 44 million doses allocated to the Philippines under COVAX hinges on the timely and efficient use of the jabs already delivered, in full compliance with WHO guidelines on vaccination priorities.

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This access to COVAX is now threatened by an ever growing list of local executives who have taken the AstraZeneca shot, ostensibly to dispel vaccine hesitancy among their constituents.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy is believable in the case of Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Legazpi Mayor Noel Rosal who took the Sinovac shot. But what about Mayor Elanito Peña of Minglanilla in Cebu and Lanao del Norte Gov. Mamintal Adiong Jr., who reportedly got AstraZeneca?

Even more eyebrow-raising is the administration of an AstraZeneca shot by the Parañaque government to actor Mark Anthony Fernandez. He’s no health frontliner and, at age 42, is far from senior citizenship. He’s no National Artist who will qualify as a national treasure needing priority vaccination. In fact the actor gained notoriety after being arrested in October 2016 with a kilo of marijuana at a checkpoint in Angeles City. (The case was dismissed a year later over what Judge Ireneo Pangilinan Jr. of the Pampanga Regional Trial Court’s Branch 58 described as breaches in police handling of the seized evidence.)

Fernandez’s principal claim to fame is that he’s the son of actors Alma Moreno and Rudy Fernandez. Alma, the first lady of Parañaque when Joey Marquez was city mayor, has served as city councilor.

Parañaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez, who currently chairs the Metro Manila Council, explained that Mark Anthony Fernandez is hypertensive and therefore qualified for the shot, as someone with comorbidities. The city is nearly done inoculating its health frontliners, Olivarez reportedly said.

In 2012, it was estimated that 21 percent of the Philippine population suffered from hypertension. Will they also be given priority in the vaccination? What about abusers of prohibited stimulants such as shabu, who may suffer from chronic high blood pressure? Will they also be allowed to jump the line?

Duterte lamented that local executives jumping the vaccination line were jeopardizing the country’s access to COVAX, and warned that they could face graft charges. Duterte, however, didn’t name Alma or her son, who giddily posted his vaccination photos on social media.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government has ordered the local executives to explain. There are suggestions that the DILG should take away supervisory powers over the inoculation program from local executives who violate vaccine priority protocols.

Local government executives are in fact frontliners in the COVID battle and deserve prioritization in the vaccination. The DILG also suffered some credibility problem after its undersecretary and spokesman, Jonathan Malaya, took the CoronaVac jab together with MMDA chief of staff Michael Salalima.

The problem is that certain local executives, once they are given discretion in the prioritization, may include their entire clan, mistresses and their clans, household and office staff, personal drivers, bodyguards, relatives of all these employees, and even pets (dogs and cats can catch COVID).

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Duterte’s authority to decry jumping the vaccination line is weakened by the fact that his Presidential Security Group, reportedly together with at least one senator, a Cabinet member or two plus (according to journalist Mon Tulfo, and many people believe him) national police chief Debold Sinas and several others, received their China-made smuggled Sinopharm shots between September and November last year.

The mitigating factor in this story is that, as with Sinovac, Filipinos’ vaccine hesitancy toward the Sinopharm shot is also high; anyone in a hurry to take it can go ahead. Just make sure any procurement will not mean more Chinese ships occupying Julian Felipe Reef and converting it into another military base like Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.

What galls the public is when the more reliable vaccines start coming in (perhaps by Christmas) and politicians in power pull rank to jump the line – not just for themselves but also for their kith and kin, their office and household staff, their political supporters and the supporters’ kith and kin, their supporters’ office and household staff, and so on down the line.

From negotiations to procurement to the rollout of the COVID vaccines, the country is on the road to perdition.

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