Dazed and confused, again

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Thanks to the usual willy-nilly implementation that has characterized much of the pandemic response, the “no vax, no ride” policy is in danger of becoming short-lived.

On the same day that enforcers, as the government had warned, were supposed to start issuing citation tickets leading to fines on violators, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III clarified a key point in the order itself: workers are exempted from the policy.

Bello explained that the order exempts the unvaccinated who are out on essential errands or activities, such as accessing medical services or buying food. And work is an essential activity. Those who have had their first primary vaccine dose are also exempted, he clarified.

There were initial protests from at least one transportation official, who said the exemption covered the majority of commuters and would defeat the purpose of the move.

Hours later, Labor Assistant Secretary Dominique Tutay clarified Bello’s clarification: not all workers are exempted.

Only workers in “essential” enterprises, both in the formal and informal sectors, which are allowed to operate under Alert Level 3 are exempted, she told us on One News’ “The Chiefs.”

Which enterprises or activities are banned under Alert Level 3? Face-to-face classes for basic education; most contact sports; funfairs or peryahan and kid amusement industries; entertainment venues with live voice or wind-instrument performers and audiences such as karaoke bars, clubs, concert halls and theaters; casinos, horse racing, cockfighting, lottery and betting shops, and other gaming establishments; and home gatherings among persons not belonging to the same household.

Among the allowed private enterprises, many owners have imposed workplace rules that virtually make vaccination mandatory among their employees. These include retail, manufacturing, service industries and professional services.

Their numbers are considerable, and many of their vaccinated employees avoid or even resent anti-vaxxers in their midst who raise everybody’s risk of infection.

*      *      *

Transport, police and traffic personnel tasked to implement the policy have pointed out their difficulty in determining if a vaccination card is authentic. The statements on the exemptions completed their discombobulation.

They can console themselves with the thought that they (along with commuters) aren’t the only ones who are confused.

Labor officials explained that unvaccinated workers in the prohibited enterprises can still take mass transportation to avail themselves of medical services or buy essentials such as food and drugs. They just have to present a barangay health certificate.

Barangay personnel said Wednesday that they were still waiting for guidelines on what exactly are the health passes and certifications that they are supposed to issue to the unvaccinated who want to take public transportation. Is there a template for the passes? How can the enforcers tell if a pass is genuine?

There are jeepney drivers who, since they can’t tell the fake from the genuine article anyway, have simply ignored the new policy. Several also ignore the Alert Level 3 seating capacity limits. I’ve seen jeepneys 100 percent full especially at night.

Checking documents before boarding can also considerably slow down the ride in a traditional jeepney, since passengers board from the back, and unlike in a bus, the jeepney driver typically does not have a conductor with him to do the checking. So the driver asks for the vaccination card only after the passenger has boarded. Several drivers have said they are embarrassed or don’t have the heart to tell the unvaccinated to disembark.

Jeepney drivers plying routes that teem with checkpoints, however, make an effort to comply with the rules, to avoid hassle.

On Wednesday, acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles admitted the confusion in the implementation of the policy. Transport officials publicly apologized for the confusion.

Health professionals, who had supported the restriction in principle to contain the ongoing Omicron-driven surge, must have been as dismayed as everyone else in the messy implementation.

*      *      *

It wasn’t entirely a lost cause. The restriction was meant to persuade the holdouts in Metro Manila to get their shots pronto.

And we did see a renewed surge of people waiting in long lines for their primary doses. In media interviews, a common explanation among the holdouts was that their unvaccinated world kept getting smaller – lumiliit ang aming mundo – and the no vax, no ride policy was just the final straw. Their travel was restricted, they sighed, and they were barred from many restaurants and commercial establishments.

Malls, which used to require vaccination cards only in their food courts, now require the cards at the main entry points. Fortunately, I brought my card with me yesterday for a brief stop at a mall supermarket.

The mall requirement has to be one of the biggest reasons for those long lines of holdouts finally getting their primary shots.

Combined with the disincentives is surely the threat posed by Omicron. There are so many people, including the fully vaccinated and boosted, now getting infected that I’m guessing all of us know someone who has been infected this month alone, or whose household members have caught COVID.

Those daily case numbers, high as they are, must surely be lower than the actual figures. Even the Department of Health has admitted underreporting as antigen test results are not recorded and many people turn to self-diagnosis, home isolation and medication.

Aside from the disincentives for the unvaccinated, health experts have repeatedly warned that Omicron is not mild per se, but simply milder than the lethal Delta, and has so far killed two vulnerable seniors in our country.

So people are turning to vaccines and boosters for protection.

At the 24/7 drive-through booster site in Manila’s Rizal Park, there has been a consistent long line of vehicles. I know people who are no longer waiting for six months from their second dose and are walking into vaccination sites for their boosters. And they are waiting for their children’s turn to be vaccinated.

In Cebu City, Mayor Michael Rama told “The Chiefs” that they are not implementing the “no vax, no ride” policy.

While stressing that the city has a high vaccination rate, he said that in promoting COVID inoculation and public compliance with health protocols, he prefers “IEC” – information, education and communication.

IEC should have preceded the implementation of no vax, no ride. In Metro Manila, we’re seeing the reverse. The inevitable result is confusion.


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