The Philippines’ Vaccine Crisis

Written by Catherine Xu, Dipika Pujara, and Jhanvi Desai

On February 8th 2021, the Malacanang spokesman announced that the Covid-19 vaccination plan would kickstart on February 15th, 2021. This announcement should be good news, considering that the Philippines has recently surpassed 500,000 cases, ranking second in southeast Asia for the worst response to the pandemic. Preceding this announcement, the government had only given the range for the time that the vaccines would arrive (before March) and scrambled to sign contracts with pharmaceutical companies for vaccines. However, only the question in regards to the date seems to have been answered: there remains confusion over which vaccine people will get, how many vaccines they have, and which groups of people will receive which vaccine. 

Since the public confidence in vaccines in the Philippines is low, ranking below 70th in the world in 2019, it is absolutely crucial for the government to clarify their vaccine distribution plan. While misinformation surrounding vaccines have been globally prevalent for the past couple of years, the reluctance of the Filipino people to take the vaccine may be due to the Dengue vaccine failure in 2017. Dengue fever is a mosquito borne infection that creates flu-like symptoms with no specific treatment. Due to its tropical climates, the Philippines has been a center of this disease. More than 6 months after the Dengvaxia vaccine was launched in the Philippines, researchers re-analyzed trial results only to find that the vaccine caused recipients who never got Dengue fever before to be at a higher risk for severe fever, linking the deaths of several children to the vaccine. This incident became a national scandal that led to congressional hearings and a criminal investigation. Between the years of 2015 to 2020, vaccine confidence in the Philippines has dropped from 90% to 60%, with speculation of the Dengvaxia scandal being the root cause for the decrease in trust.

“The pandemic has decreased GDP growth in the Philippines by 9.5%, its worst economic contraction on record, pressuring the government to ramp up vaccine distribution. However, with the citizens unwilling, these measures may all become irrelevant.”

The controversy of the Covid-19 vaccine situation in the Philippines grew significantly when news that President Rodrigo Duterte’s security detail were vaccinated with smuggled vaccines. The vaccine was self administered in the fall of 2020, a time where vaccines were still under clinical trials. President Rodrigo Duterte claims that he was not aware of this unethical administration of the vaccine, yet when his security detail was publicly questioned, Mr. Duterte brought the hearings to a halt. He was actively against his security detail being interrogated because, according to Mr. Duterte, he refuses for them to be “brutalized in a hearing.” Mr. Duterte emphasized how they should “stay put in the barracks,” rather than revealing any details to investigators on the case. However, organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demand answers to the unlawful actions by the Presidential Security Group. 

The investigation is impeded by the lack of information revealed about the smuggled vaccine. It is known that vaccines aren’t being manufactured in the Philippines, and with this knowledge it is understood that the Presidential Security Group illegally brought vaccinations from another country. The question at hand is, what country were these vaccines smuggled from? Speculations of the vaccine being the Sinopharm vaccine from China are up in the air, however nothing is confirmed. Information is still to be discovered, but regardless of how the vaccines were received, the unlawfulness is evident. Whether the vaccine was given to the president’s party as a “gift” or was exchanged through the black market, the public’s trust in the government was torn. Citizens of the Philippines see this dishonesty as corruption and special treatment. The lack of answers lead the public to feel deceit, especially when they aren’t being provided the budget they need to fight the pandemic locally.

The lack of a Covid-19 vaccine in the Philippines has added to the ongoing problems that the country is already facing. Being close to China, and having many Chinese nationals working in its offshore gambling industry, the country identified its first case of Covid-19 in January 2020 and has been in a series of Lockdowns since March 2020. During Lockdown, adults above the age of 60 and children below the age of 15 were not allowed to step out of the house to restrain transmission of the virus. In addition, only one person from the family was allowed to go out for essential tasks, such as getting food. Such restrictions have affected the citizens both socioeconomically and mentally. Philippines’ consumer led economy has not been able to function well when parents cannot go outside with their children and teens, who make up 40% of the country’s population. 

Lockdown has also led to an increase in unemployment rates and births in the country. Adding to these challenges, citizens have been treated unequally by the law enforcement. The poor and ordinary are the most affected by the lockdown because of the difficulties in going out to earn a livelihood are often confused by the sudden and frequent changes in regulations. While this section of the population is punished and disgraced for not following rules and guidelines, the rich and influential have been able to get away with their disobedience without any consequences despite evidence against them. Undeterred by the challenges caused by Lockdowns, the government remained firm that restrictions should not be lifted until the citizens start getting vaccinated. Being South Asia’s second most affected country with over 557,000 cases, 11,000 deaths and no vaccine, the Philippines is likely to continue to face challenges. 

The government has claimed that they are in the final stages of closing deals with several vaccine manufacturers but have not provided further details. The Philippines will also be receiving vaccines from COVAX facility, a global initiative led by the World Health Organization for the development of Covid-19 vaccines and ensuring equitable access. This will vaccinate frontline workers, though a definite date of arrival of these vaccines is not known. The country has also acquired monetary aid from the Asian Development Bank so that the government can pay manufacturers in advance to secure delivery of vaccines for its citizens. 

Despite this progress, the fate of the Philippines to control the spread of Covid-19 remains controversial.

“After the failures of Dengvaxia, fear has arisen within the people that the Covid-19 vaccine provided by the government will be harmful and potentially kill the citizens even if the Coronavirus does not.”

The fear cannot be prevented when the healthcare workers themselves do not trust the vaccines. The country already faces challenges of providing effective care and treatment to the 2000 inhabited islands in this archipelago where there is a shortage of healthcare workers. Moreover, the absence of vaccines and distrust of people does not help to minimize the challenges.

Edited by Nidhi Talasani

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