Two things are imperative for an effective Covid-19 vaccination program: the accessibility of safe, quality vaccines and high public confidence in them. 

Safe, quality, accessible vaccines

While technological advancements have accelerated the development of the vaccines, their rollout has been muddled by self-serving capitalistic and geopolitical interests. 

High-income countries have been hogging the global vaccine supply, leaving very little for poor countries. They find themselves looking to COVAX, a global vaccine supply mechanism that is dependent on the charity of rich countries. China, for its part, has been using vaccine diplomacy as a form of soft power to promote its interests among developing South American and Asian countries. In spite of heavy public funding for vaccine development and the economic hardships experienced by the working class, pharmaceutical companies are profiteering from patents on the vaccines. Once countries convert their provisional emergency use authorizations to certificates of product registration, the blind invisible hand of the market will yet again dictate who gets what, who lives or dies.

Recognizing the power imbalances that sabotage equitable vaccine distribution, nation states, activists, and civil society organizations have been campaigning for a People’s Vaccine. This initiative aims to harness global solidarity to ensure the free flow of information about, equitable distribution planning for and financing of, as well as access to vaccines and therapeutics. 

In the Philippines, the unjust global distribution and limitations on the manufacturing of vaccines seem to force us to make do with what reaches our shores. The intermittent flow of vaccines complicates their allocation and distribution to people according to their level of exposure to the virus. Initiatives to ensure vaccine equity should be anchored on addressing issues such as the accommodation of elites during vaccine distribution and the undue politicization of public health practices as we near the 2022 elections.

Confidence in vaccines

The success of the quest for a people’s vaccine depends not only on its just distribution but also on how well people embrace it as their own. Herd immunity would not be achieved if vaccinations fail to cover a wide segment of the population. Recent surveys show that a measly 19% of Filipinos are willing to receive their jabs1. Confidence in vaccines has been going down steadily since 20142.  Possible contributors to poor vaccine uptake include lack of effective community-based vaccine promotion strategies and fear in the wake of the recent Dengvaxia controversy.

The first step to shoring up public confidence in vaccines is the presentation to prospective recipients of clear information grounded on solid scientific evidence. The arrival of Sinovac’s Coronavac and its administration to health care workers triggered debates within the medical community. While vaccines, especially those in advanced stages of clinical trials are generally safe, peer-reviewed, published reports of clinical trials allow health professionals and policy makers to appropriately recommend who should receive this vaccine. Using an available vaccine with a low efficacy rate for a high-exposure population group might be a policy question but solid scientific evidence can always provide some light. 

Second, the public must be treated as co-owners of the vaccine rollout. In the process of selecting the vaccines, people should not be told to just sit down or ignore the nitty gritty of things that directly affect their health. The government and public health authorities should not sideline the inherent agency of communities in scrutinizing their conditions, recommending action points, and evaluating the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout. The quest for a people’s vaccine cannot triumph if experts continue to talk down to people. The failure of experts to deliver on their promises and meet expectations will translate to betrayal of public trust. We cannot disempower the public that we are trying to win over.  Only with genuine people empowerment, thorough conversations, and fidelity to scientific evidence can we make our vaccination program work.   

A lot of work needs to be done to achieve our goal of a people’s vaccine. This only shows that addressing structural imbalances is one of our critical areas of engagement if we want to pull ourselves out of this pandemic. 

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[1] Lacuata (2021, February 25) Only 19 percent of adult Filipinos willing to be vaccinated vs COVID-19: survey. Retrieved from https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/02/25/21/only-19-percent-of-adult-filipinos-willing-to-be-vaccinated-vs-covid-19-survey on March 7, 2021

[2] UNICEF (2020, April 23) 2 million Filipino children may miss out on vaccinations in 2020 amidst COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/philippines/press-releases/2-million-filipino-children-may-miss-out-vaccinations-2020-amidst-covid-19 on March 7, 2021