POSTSCRIPT / December 6, 2020 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Slowpoke misses the vaccine train

“MISSING the train” isn’t just an expression. It is a life-defining experience, one that could leave the traveler either weakened or strengthened as he moves to other train stations of life.

In my college days decades ago, I always took the train from our town Mabalacat to Tutuban in Manila. Lugging my battered maleta, I would trudge to the train tracks almost a kilometer from our house, then turn left to the railroad bridge to reach the train station.

I had to cross that span before the train arrived. If I was too slow, the train would beat me to the bridge, reach the station ahead and proceed to Manila without me. A number of times I missed the train. (But if it’s any consolation now, while I’m still around, the rail line in our town is gone!)

When I sit down soon to write my collection of train stories, there will be one line, one lesson, running through the pages. It is that a train, if not the whole world, waits for no one.

Before I drift away from my topic today, which is the COVID-19 pandemic, let me recall someone’s promise of a vaccine to prevent our catching the coronavirus. Since there is no standard cure for it yet, the logical preemptive action is vaccination.

Mass inoculation appears to be the only train in sight that can deliver us from the coronavirus that is trying to beat us to the bridge. Failing to cross that span first and missing the train would be disastrous.

In his next weekly appearance from what his spokesman had called “perpetual isolation”, President Duterte can help reassure the nation by reporting on the timetable and other details of his COVID-19 vaccination program, if he has any.

While at it, Duterte should also list clearly the descending order of priority of the 2.6 million initial recipients of free vaccine, assuming the drugs arrive before many of the intended beneficiaries are added to the lengthening other list of the dead.

To buy the vaccine for the targeted 60 million people (60 percent of the population), around P144 billion is needed at the reported price of P1,200 per dose with each person getting two shots. Another P144 billion is needed for the handling of the stock.

Duterte can also update us on his promise made some months ago of the vaccine being available by December. We presume he meant December 2020, this month and not next year, and that he was referring to vaccines from China and/or Russia.

What ever happened to those promises? Did he misunderstand the Chinese and Russian proposals to include Filipino volunteers in their Phase-3 trials as offers for mass inoculation with their vaccines whose safety and efficacy had been approved?

Did the offers include discounts and donations, which might explain why no government funds were prepared for outright purchases? Did Duterte forget that there is no such thing as a free meal, even from professed friends?

Some months back, Duterte assured the nation on TV “may pera ako” which was presumably his folksy way of saying that the government has money to buy, store and distribute vaccines as needed.

May pera nga, but if the billions are deposited in the bank, fetching a referral fee and earning interest for whoever, they may not be quickly available for buying P144 billion worth of vaccines in a market swarming with rich buyers.

Did Duterte forget that a down payment or deposit is needed to assure prompt delivery? But how can deposits be paid with money that is still earning interest in the banks for whoever?

Malacañang says not to worry since there are lending-sources for the emergency purchase. But why chain our children to debt time-bombs? Why don’t we first flush out lump sums hidden in the national budget that are known beds of corruption, then go into a drastic reallocation of resources?

Why don’t we tap, for instance, the mountain of intelligence funds in the Office of the President amounting to P4.5 billion for 2021? More of such funds are scattered among other agencies even if they have not shown enough intelligence to merit slush funds.

To get the feel of how tiny is the Philippines’ planned purchase of 2.6 million doses of the vaccine, look at these confirmed-plus-projected orders of other countries, many of them with smaller population, who had acted quickly for emergency purchases:

United States, 2.6 billion doses; European Union, 2.9 billion; India, 1.6 billion; United Kingdom, 507 million; Indonesia, 450 million; Canada, 414 million; Japan, 290 million; Brazil, 196 million; Mexico, 179 million; Vietnam, 150 million; Latin America with Brazil, 150 million; Australia, 135 million; Chile, 84 million; Egypt, 55 million; Argentina, 47 million; Uzbekistan, 35 million; Bangladesh, 30 million; Taiwan, 30 million; Nepal, 25 million; Turkey, 20 million; Israel, 20 million; Hong Kong, 10 million; Venezuela, 10 million; and Peru, 10 million. (Data taken from the npr [National Public Radio] news website.)

We were quite slow in closing our doors when the COVID-19 first exploded in January in Wuhan City, China, because we were afraid such a drastic move would offend our friends watching us from the mainland. We were found wanting in that early stage of the pandemic.

We should have learned our lesson about being resolute in safeguarding the general welfare of our people, but our painfully slow reaction as the situation worsened shows we still have not learned it. We have missed the train again, this time on vaccine procurement.

Either we do not care much for our people, preferring to manipulate and intimidate them to submission, or we have been engrossed with mundane other things (ironically using the pandemic as the excuse), or we are simply gross and incompetent. Or all of the above.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 6, 2020)

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