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Anti-COVID legacy to pass on

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 9, 2021 - 12:00am

It was my first time to talk and interview Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Wendel Avisado who was guest in our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay via Zoom Webinar last Wednesday. A member of the economic team of Cabinet officials of President Rodrigo Duterte, the DBM Secretary presented to us “the effective use” of budget resources of the national government being shepherded to control the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Avisado is also part of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID). The former Davao City Administrator was catapulted to the national scene when he was appointed to head the DBM in August 2019 by his erstwhile boss, Davao City Mayor Duterte.

Since the pandemic struck our country last year, Avisado admitted almost two-thirds of the national budget went to the anti-COVID measures being implemented by the government. Out of the Congress-approved P4.056-trillion budget for this year, Avisado disclosed, the DBM had already released P3.46 trillion to all the national government agencies (NGAs), including the government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) as well as the internal revenue allotments (IRA) to the local government units (LGUs).

This is, he cited, equivalent to 76.5% of the total budget so far released until the second quarter of this year. From his computations, he noted, P1 trillion of the budget remains available for the rest of this year. This is why, the DBM chief is set to submit an Executive Order for the President to sign imposing “austerity measures” of all non-essential activities under the 2021 budget for Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses in all NGAs and GOCCs to bankroll the Congress-proposed Bayanihan-3.

According to the DBM chief, the biggest expenses charged to this year’s budget of the Department of Health (DOH) were related to the P82.4-billion anti-COVID interventions being implemented by the Duterte administration. This is on top of the P82.5-billion funding to the National Vaccination Program of the government under the stewardship of designated “vaccine czar,” Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. Avisado acknowledged the Department of Finance (DOF) for having raised vaccine funds, largely from foreign loan borrowings and official development assistance (ODAs).

During a Zoom meeting last Tuesday night with the economic team, Avisado revealed, President Duterte has given the go-signal for them to set into motion the government’s plans to put up vaccine manufacturing plants here in the country. With the pandemic seen not to end any time sooner, Avisado echoed the President’s lament that our country remains at the mercy of limited vaccine supply globally.

President Duterte first echoed this in his speech before a virtual conference of the United Nations General Assembly held in New York in October last year to press for “universal access” of anti-COVID vaccines to low-income countries like the Philippines. Early on last year, rich countries already cornered the supply of anti-COVID vaccines with pre-paid bulk orders.

While the Philippines is among the low-income COVID-impacted countries that got allocations from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX Facility, this particular source of vaccines now also faces supply problem. WHO Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe recently announced the Philippines stands to receive around 4.5 million doses more of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines slated for delivery in May this year from the COVAX Facility.

However, due to the export ban recently imposed by the European Union (EU), Abeyasinghe conceded last week, the deployment of AstraZeneca to the Philippines and other countries outside of EU-member states may face delay.

Anti-COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are also supposed to be deployed to the Philippines from the United States (US). But Galvez admitted last Monday, this schedule will be pushed back. Galvez explained the US vaccine supply is expected to ease up only once the new administration of President Joe Biden achieves their vaccination target by US Independence Day on July 4.

So far, one million doses of Sinovac from China and 487,000 doses of AstraZeneca from COVAX Facility that arrived in the country were all donations. Additional one million doses of Sinovac were purchased and paid for out of DOH budget this year have arrived last week.

As instructed by the President, Avisado told us, the economic team is now drawing up measures to encourage the private sector business, both foreign and local, to invest in vaccine manufacturing here. Initial proposals, he cited, include provisions to allow the private sector to set up shop either on their own, or with their foreign partners with a guarantee that the Philippine government “will buy all their vaccines” as their captured market.

Just like what is happening now globally, he added, the vaccine makers here will first be required to satisfy domestic requirements before they will be allowed to export their vaccine products.

“Walang tutulong sa Pilipino kung hindi tayong mga kapwa Pilipino rin,” Avisado stressed. This is the favorite extro in speeches of former president Joseph Estrada during the latter’s shortened term in Malacañang.

Sadly, Mr. Estrada who is turning 84 years old on April 19, has been stricken with pneumonia related to COVID-19 infection. He is currently intubated in critical but stable condition at the hospital. At the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, Avisado joined us in praying for Mr. Estrada to pull through out of his health crisis.

There are still 15 months left of the Duterte administration within which at least one vaccine manufacturing plant could be put up. In fact, existing pharmaceutical companies in the Philippines like Unilab Inc. can put up vaccine production plants with such support from the government.

With even just one vaccine plant in place, President Duterte can leave this as a legacy to the next administration. So whoever his successor will not inherit the same dire situation we are in right now.

COVID-19
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