Vaccines vs lockdowns

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

An emotional exchange unnecessarily erupted last Tuesday (Sept. 7), during the zoom meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID). Choice cuts of the recorded zoom meeting went viral in social media two days later showing two of the dramatis personae involved.

The cause celebre revolved around the issues of hard lockdown being implemented by the IATF amid the continuing resurgence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The video excerpts showed Presidential spokesman Secretary Harry Roque who is also the concurrent official spokesman for the IATF ranting against someone. As subsequently confirmed by Roque, he was vehemently reacting to Dr. Maricar Limpin, president of the Philippine College of Physicians, who was pleading with the IATF members to restore the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) classification at the national capital region (NCR).

Speaking for their plight, Dr. Limpin appealed to the IATF to reconsider downgrading the NCR to a general community quarantine (GCQ) status while the Delta variant has been spiking COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila areas. In tears, she batted for longer MECQ period to slow down the rising COVID-19 cases.

Obviously, President Rodrigo Duterte was not present in that zoom meeting.

President Duterte meets with the IATF every Monday night. Up to now, Roque admitted, he is still trying to find out who invited Dr. Limpin to the supposed “secret” meeting of the IATF. The IATF, he pointed out, conducts its meeting in closed sessions precisely to allow “robust debate” on all matters taken up to bring out all possible arguments for or against certain issues, especially on quarantine re-classifications. On that day, the IATF decided to postpone the GCQ downgrading of the NCR after the Metro Manila Mayors asked for more detailed guidelines on the adoption of “granular lockdowns,” or area-specific quarantine restrictions.

A voice that sounded like Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III tried but failed to calm down Roque from venting.  Retorting to Bello, Roque shot back that it was about time to speak harshly to “this group which has not said any thing good” about the government’s anti-COVID responses. Pardon the description but Roque was literally frothing in the mouth in anger.

“We all want to save lives, for crying out loud,” Roque hollered.

A more calm Roque appeared on his daily virtual press briefing last Friday to explain why he exploded to seeming innocuous appeal to the IATF. Roque repeatedly apologized for the manner he lost control of his temper. But Roque quickly added he won’t apologize for the message of his outburst. He claimed he merely served as the voice of the many Filipinos who lost their jobs, income, livelihood and loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic amid ensuing lockdowns in the country since March last year.

“Tao lamang po (I’m only human),” Roque cited. As Alexander Pope, poet of the Enlightenment, lent a famous line from his 1711 treatise An Essay on Criticism to the US Institutes of Medicine’s report on patient safety: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

If it was about the criticisms against the Philippine government’s anti-COVID responses, it should not raise anymore the hackles of Roque. For so many months now, Roque has been facing the most bitter questions by media, not just criticisms he has to respond to as the official spokesperson of the IATF.

If any consolation to Roque – and the Duterte administration for that matter – it is on record that Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative to the Philippines, praised in a TV interview last July 6 our anti-COVID measures as one of the best examples in pandemic responses given the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

“Let us look at the Philippines, in terms of income capacity, population size, its being an archipelago, in a fair manner compared to far more resource-abundant countries. Even with limited capacity, the number of people who have succumbed to the virus is relatively lower compared to countries that have higher capacity and resources. It appears that the Philippines has done a good job. The Philippines is a middle income country. You cannot expect them to have a First World-type response,” Abeyasinghe pointed out.

So far, more than 16.1 million Filipinos out of the 110 million population are fully vaccinated, or 14.9%. On the other hand, the COVID-19 cases here spiked anew following detection of more transmissible Delta and other foreign variants. The Philippines breached the two-million mark in COVID cases last Sept. 1 based from cumulative figures since day one when the pandemic struck in March last year.

As of Sept. 11, our country logged 26,303 new COVID-19 cases as the “highest single-day” record. Thank God, the COVID-related death rate remains low at 1.59%. But one dead is still one dead too many.

In the IATF meeting last Friday night, President Duterte bewailed anew the country’s vaccination deployment that remains dependent on the world supply of anti-COVID vaccines. He echoed the laments of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a press interview in Geneva the day before. Tedros appealed to international vaccine makers to prioritize giving the first anti-COVID jabs to health workers and vulnerable populations in poorer nations over booster shots reportedly being implemented already in wealthy countries.

High-income countries had promised to donate more than one billion vaccine doses to poorer countries through the WHO COVAX Facility, Tedros recalled. To date, however, less than 15 percent of those doses have been delivered to COVAX Facility, Tedros deplored.

The WHO had set a global target of seeing every country vaccinate at least 10 percent of its population by the end of this month and at least 40 percent by the end of this year. And by the middle of next year, the WHO targets to see at least 70 percent of the world’s population vaccinated.

More vaccines are scheduled for delivery here. This should augur well for less emotional lockdown debates.

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