Numbers of covid-19 patients peaked at the start of the new year as fears of healthcare professionals all over the world were confirmed: although transmission of the virus can be mitigated through distancing, masking, testing and tracing, and treatment, SARS-CoV-2 is evolving and spreading more quickly. 

But after weeks that saw more than half a million new infections per day, the numbers have been tapering off especially in wealthy countries that had early access to most of the global vaccine supply.

Unfortunately, scientists from the United States’ Centers for Disease Control are afraid that new variants of the virus might spark a new wave of infections. 

 

Philippine situation

The Philippines’ number of daily infections has been rising after a significant dip in December 2020. The country had around 620,000 cases and more than 50,000 being active as of March 13th. More than 95 percent of active cases were ild or asymptomatic cases while the remaining 5 percent were moderate to critical. Around 13,000 Filipinos died of the virus.

Three vaccines have been granted Emergency Use Authorization by the country’s Food and Drug Administration: Comirnaty (Pfizer) , AZD1222 (AstraZeneca), and Coronavac (Sinovac).

New variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been appearing in different parts of the globe and the Philippines has detected the B117, B1351, and P1 variants—first found in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil, respectively. P1 has been reported to be possibly resistant to immune response developed through natural immunity and vaccination. The Department of Health has also confirmed the emergence of P3, a variant first found in the Philippines. As of March 13, there have been around 100 cases of the P3 variant in the country.

 

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy

Social media and the internet, seemingly the most accessible sources of information amid the pandemic for Filipinos have been sources of false information and ill-informed opinion on the efficacy of authorized vaccines.

After the Dengvaxia controversy, previously high vaccine efficacy and safety confidence levels dropped from 82 percent (2015) to 22 percent (2018), says the UK-based The Vaccine Project. According to the Octa Research Group, only 19 percent of Filipinos are willing to take the vaccine citing safety and efficacy concerns, giving a trust rating of 20 percent to 25 percent for the available vaccines.

 

Vaccine supply chain and roll-out

Wealthier nations such as the United States, Canada, and Japan have acquired at least 70 percent of global vaccine supply as they scale up vaccination efforts within their own borders. The United States has been reported to be sitting on millions of doses of AZD1222 (AstraZeneca) while awaiting their approval by health authorities. Covax, a vaccine distribution operation backed by the World Health Organization to help low-income countries, has only been able to approve two vaccine options and has been experiencing difficulties in buying and delivering vaccines.

Transport and storage technology needed to deliver vaccines to low-income countries—Popular, innovative vaccines like Moderna and Comirnaty need sub-zero storage facilities to stay effective—are expensive and difficult to acquire, maintain, and bring to far-flung areas. 

What can we do to overcome the limits to the Philippine response to the pandemic?

 

Countering false information about vaccines

Government and civil society, including the private sector and the media, should unite in communicating science-based vaccine information to the public. This calls for a holistic approach using social media, grassroots community organizing, and traditional media coverage. We have to create a unified message addressing key issues to increase vaccine confidence.

We have to address growing concerns about “lack of choice” for our frontline healthcare workers who are currently receiving vaccines all over the country, assuring them that if they are not comfortable taking a certain vaccine option they can opt out without losing their spot on the priority list and will be given other vaccine options once available. 

We have to address safety and efficacy concerns about certain vaccines and emphasize the net societal gains of early vaccination, especially reducing the possibility of outbreaks in the future. We have to assure the public that side effects are normal and rare. We have to educate the public about the meaning of vaccine efficacy.

We have to address concerns on the country’s rising debt and clearly explain reasons and configurations of increased spending  to stimulate the economy. At the same time, we need to assure the public that the Philippines has institutional capacities to manage incurring debts to aid in the needed additional economic spending.

 

Support for the vaccine program and faithfulness to health protocols

On March 1st, the Philippine government launched the national vaccination program focusing on vaccinating our healthcare workers as quickly as possible. So far, about 44,000 healthcare workers have been vaccinated across the country. The health department is using 600,000 vaccine doses from Sinovac and over 480,000 doses from AstraZeneca via Covax.

Supporting the national vaccination program is a moral imperative for Filipinos. Nations (especially those in the global south) should prioritize vaccinating the majority of their populations over pricing concerns. The best vaccine is the first vaccine available for you to take. It will not only provide you with adequate protection against the virus, but also protect those around you who have not developed immunity.

No virus can stand effective vaccination and lockdown programs. If we meet our goal to vaccinate huge swaths of the population as soon as possible, it’s going to prove to be difficult for covid-19 to continue to ravage our nation. When we vaccinate faster, we’ll be saving millions of lives.

 

Holding the government accountable

Supporting the national vaccination program does not mean we turn a blind eye to official mismanagement. More than ever, we must pressure our government to procure vaccines, acquire better options, and deliver them to Filipinos quickly and safely.

Our government must:

  1. uphold the prioritization of healthcare workers, other frontline workers, senior citizens, etc.) and be held accountable for the alleged line-cutting of some individuals and their families in the Presidential Security Group and other administration entities, 
  1. investigate alleged black-market vaccine distribution in the country with involvement of employees from the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators, 
  1. be transparent about the use of the more than P70 billion from the 2021 General Appropriations Act and P10 billion from the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act for vaccine procurement, other provisions of spending bills since the start of the pandemic, and on loans secured by the national government, 
  1. look to other nations’ best practices with regard to effective distancing and lockdown protocols while taking into consideration the social and economic needs of the country,
  1. double the current daily testing rate of up to 30,000 tests and test all Filipinos for free, and 
  1. shield the response to the pandemic from politicking as election season draws near. 

Our private sector should also support the national government in implementing a comprehensive and centralized vaccination plan, learning from  the best practices of nations around the world. A centralized plan will prevent the politicization of local vaccine programs and ensure equitable distribution of vaccines.

We must amplify calls for wealthy nations to donate their excess vaccines to shore up global supply and accelerate vaccination programs of poorer countries. We must also demand that these wealthy nations remove intellectual property restrictions on the vaccines so they may be mass produced everywhere.

 

The case for universal health coverage

As we rally behind a vaccination program, we have to push for the implementation of the  Universal Healthcare Law, which was passed in February 2019 to guarantee every Filipino access to free, quality healthcare. Filipinos deserve nothing less.

The pandemic showed us the need for a more robust healthcare system especially to enable workers and the poor to adapt to the growing challenges of socio-economic disarray. Covid-19 does not discriminate based on economic status, but those who do not have the resources to access both testing and treatment are disproportionately affected.

Covered by universal healthcare, poor, low-income, rural, and indigenous communities will be able to battle outbreaks in their own communities and enable the government to mitigate the effects of pandemics. 

The light at the end of this long, long tunnel is in sight. But this should not make us complacent in combating the virus. In a race, we do not relax and wind down when we see the end. We grit our teeth and run faster until everyone of us is past the finish line.