EDITORIAL: Immunity, not impunity

Hope: this is what news of the COVID-19 vaccine was meant to bring us. But the government’s jumbled plans on vaccine procurement and distribution have only threatened our hopes for an early end to the pandemic.

All eyes are now on the distribution of the country’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccines brought by the global vaccine sharing scheme COVAX. Some 100,000 Pfizer vaccines are set to be stored in Department of Health facilities next week before being injected into the frontliners of COVID-19 referral hospitals.

But lest we forget how the government dampened Filipinos’ confidence in the vaccine: The Duterte administration’s preference for vaccines from China and Russia  raised alarm bells in January along with attempts to overprice them. Afterwards, opinion polls show only a third of Filipinos are willing to be inoculated with the vaccine, while most remain wary of unclear information about the vaccines.

All this as a black market for coronavirus vaccines are underway. 

Should impunity preserve its reign, the scenes of inequality unfolding before us will continue to follow a trend that is all too familiar in this country — where the rich can skip the line to get vaccinated while the poor continue to look on in despair. 

Misplaced priorities

The Philippines’ lack of a comprehensive vaccination plan left us trailing in Southeast Asia at the start of the year.

From our own health secretary “dropping the ball” in securing a deal with Pfizer to the shameless administration of VIP vaccinations, the government’s criminal negligence is at the forefront of every misstep.

President Duterte’s staunch support for China’s Sinovac vaccine, despite cheaper and peer-reviewed options from other countries, is evidence of the government’s blatant ignorance. Even as some studies showed Sinovac to achieve only a 50.38% efficacy rate, Duterte remained defensive of his choice. 

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque even went as far as to tell Filipinos not to be “picky.” His message is loud and definite: the well-being and fervent demands of Filipinos are the least of their priorities.

The government has long undermined the welfare and safety of Filipinos, directing its power in fueling its fascist agenda through its support of the military. This became clearer when some soldiers and Cabinet officials were among the first to be vaccinated Dec. 28, while millions of frontline healthcare workers are still anxiously anticipating for their right to vaccination to be fulfilled. 

No one should be surprised at this point. President Duterte has always given the military first class tickets to a way out of any crisis. But by doing so, he has willfully abused his power for self-preservation, ignoring his mandate as a public servant.

The vaccine procurement has become so insidious and rotten of an affair that an underground rollout has been happening under our noses. An estimated 100,000 Chinese workers in the Philippines have reportedly been vaccinated, as their growing demand for immunity has driven the creation of a black market for illegal and overpriced vaccines. These vaccines are reportedly more expensive than the $30, or almost P1500, standard price in China, a staggering amount that the poorest of Filipinos could only dream to afford.

When survival through the vaccine is determined by influence, connections and one’s ability to pay, we see a grim picture of how deep we are into the crevasse of capitalism. 

Procrastination as distraction

The Duterte regime knows it is failing — it is not stupid enough to be so unaware. It is, however, cruel enough to attempt to distract the Filipino people from these failures instead of taking accountability and building solutions. It is almost as if they have no intention of freeing this nation from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The creation of a false enemy has long been in the Duterte administration’s political toolbox. Duterte’s late night addresses are full of crude threats against critical journalists, progressive organizations and unions of various sectors who dare cry foul against him.

Most recently, however, Duterte and his military cronies have been more aggressive in resurrecting Marcosian anti-communist sentiments against the New People’s Army — and caught in the crossfire are legitimate progressive, oft left-leaning organizations and institutions. 

Last month, the Department of National Defense (DND) unilaterally terminated the 1989 UP-DND Accord, UP’s legal safeguard against any military infiltration into its campuses. In the letter sent to UP authorities last Jan. 15, DND Secretary Delfin Lorenzana offered nothing but groundless allegations and red-tagging to justify the abrogation, even claiming it to be “for the students’ safety” in all his flagrant hypocrisy. 

But the military forces that Lorenzana wants UP students to view as “protectors worthy of trust” are the very same villains responsible for countless warrantless arrests and extrajudicial killings even in just the last year alone.

State forces then twisted its knife even deeper into UP’s back when elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines directly red-tagged specific colleges, student institutions and campus publications within the university’s system in a Jan. 22 press conference broadcasted on the 5th Civil Relations Group’s Facebook page. Anti-communism czar Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade also recently alleged that violations of the Anti-Terrorism Law were being committed within the university, such as collaboration with underground rebels, the creation of propaganda and even the manufacturing of firearms and explosives — all without providing any evidence.

These allegations are undoubtedly attempts by the military to stifle academic freedom and progressive dissent within the university. And while these claims are baseless and empty, they are tactical — because if UP, the ‘bastion of student activism,’ can now be infiltrated by the military, what is to become of smaller universities and colleges with something to say? Duterte has once again made the cowardly decision to force fear down the throats of his critics instead of facing the music as he should.

With all this against a backdrop of the Anti-Terror Law and the coronavirus pandemic, one cannot help but ask: what is all this even for? If we are to look back on history for answers, all this is a mere spectacle the government is using to derail and distract us from failing to fulfill its one pressing duty — to get every single Filipino vaccinated.

Citizens and local governments left to fend for themselves

As the national government busies itself fighting phantom enemies and ‘solving’ problems they created themselves, local government units (LGUs) and private sectors are left scrambling to fend for themselves. 

With its colossal, debt-supplied and emergency-power-ridden budget, the national government is expected to be at the forefront of ending the prolonged crisis brought by the pandemic. Yet, this burden is once again passed down to LGUs and private sectors, not a far cry from where we were when the pandemic began. 

Due to the lack of leadership, vaccine procurement has been decentralized with LGUs and private firms signing deals with their preferred brands. Although these procurements are coursed through the national task force against COVID-19, it fails to secure LGUs with meek budgets to cover all their constituents. 

At this point, the national government is becoming solely reliant on the LGU and private sector’s individual efforts – truly unbecoming of an institution that prides itself with machismo and authoritarian tendencies.

The country continues its dalliance with social collapse as prices of basic needs skyrocket, unemployment soars and our GDP reaches record lows. Amid layers of crises, students and teachers continue to call for #LigtasNaBalikEskwela as the past months have shown that distance learning is not only unsustainable, severely flawed and anti-poor, but is also incredibly detrimental, both to health and learning, for everybody in the education sector. 

It has become incessantly clear that the only way forward is to secure an effective, science-based vaccination plan that is not thwarted by greed of those in power.

The pandemic has already exacerbated countless systemic faults plaguing the nation, but with the rate at which the administration is moving, the country is getting stretched far too thin. If procurement woes with the vaccine are any indication of the future we have left, it would be far too easy to imagine Filipinos choosing between death via COVID, state forces or starvation.

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