POSTSCRIPT / May 2, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Let’s just pay China for its vax donation

HAS President Duterte’s accepting COVID-19 vaccine donations from China affected his handling of such sensitive issues as Filipino fishermen’s survival, Chinese occupation of the West Philippine Sea, and the despoiling of the marine ecosystem?

No Philippine interests have been compromised, Duterte says, but his emphasis on “utang na loob” (debt of gratitude) and his hesitation to push harder against China’s continuing violation of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone seem to indicate the opposite.

Duterte often mentions his “utang na loob” to China to explain why he has not been asserting Filipino interests aggressively enough in resolving issues related to the West Philippine Sea.

Wednesday night, during his televised “Tell the People” show, Duterte again told the world, “China is a good friend. We owe them a debt of gratitude, a lot, including our vaccines. We don’t want trouble with them, especially a war.”

His simplistic view, colored by the “might is right” idea, is that an armed confrontation is the only way to recover territory lost to a militarily superior aggressor.

But the “utang na loob” card flies in the face of a report Friday of the Department of Finance that the Philippines has accumulated $18.4-billion (about P887 billion) in foreign loans for pandemic response obtained at concessional interest rates.

The loans, disclosed by Finance Undersecretary Mark Dennis in a media briefing, can buy enough vaccines to inoculate 70-80 percent of the 110-million population to achieve herd immunity, or enough people with acquired resistance to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

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NEXT question crying for an answer today, not Tuesday night next week, is: Where are those pandemic-response loans totaling about P887 billion? The total breaks down to a per capita share of $280.47 or over P13,500.

It appears that the Philippines can afford to buy all the vaccines it needs, if available, including those with efficacy and safety ratings superior to those made in China. The country can forego accepting vaccine donations with strings attached.

Since the Chinese donations are affecting Duterte’s handling of issues involving China, we strongly suggest before national interests are compromised that we pay for those donations and put an end to this drama over “utang na loob”.

Last we heard, China has donated a total of one million doses made by Sinovac Biotech. At P1,300 per dose (the price disclosed by Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez in a Senate hearing in January), they should cost us P1.3 billion.

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PRESIDENT Duterte himself has said many times “may pera ako” when discussions turn to buying vaccines. With the finance department saying the country has accumulated P887 billion in foreign loans meant for fighting the pandemic, he must be telling the truth.

“May pera ako” literally translates to “I have money”. Even if said by one who sometimes confuses himself for the State — like in the personalistic “L’état c’est moi” (The state, it is I) similar to his “ang mga pulis ko” (my policemen) and “aking sundalo” (my soldier) – Duterte must be correct about our having the needed funds.

In the 2021 national budget alone, the government has set aside some P82.5 billion for COVID-19 vaccines, of which P70 billion will come from loans and additional revenues classified as unprogrammed funds.

That is welcome news. True Filipinos will agree that tapping those billions is better than paying for vaccines with our precious isles in the WPS and the rich mineral resources buried in what Duterte once referred to as the “bowels” of the seabed under it.

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IT IS sad that many desperate Filipinos had allowed themselves to be injected with vaccines made in China only because no other brands were available. The Duterte administration has been unusually slow in procuring other vaccines from the West.

The second batch of 400,000 Sinovac vaccines donated by China arrived March 24. This is on top of the 600,000 doses delivered Feb. 28 to kick off the delayed mass inoculation. More shipments eventually totaling 25 million doses are coming, but these are purchases.

Even with just the loans secured from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank totaling $1.2 billion (around P58.5 billion) for vaccines, there are enough ready funds.

An interesting note in the ADB loan agreement, btw, specifies that the bank will not course payments through the Philippine government but will give the money directly to the vaccine suppliers. That looks like a good housekeeping rule in this neck of the woods.

The $400-million ADB loan is to be paid in 10 years, with a grace period of three years. It is the maximum amount the Philippines can get under this financing facility. The bank’s loans and grants supporting the Philippines’ pandemic response have amounted to around $3 billion.

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ONE wonders how Duterte can sleep in peace under his now famous kulambo (mosquito net) while loans, grants, aid, etc., dangle from strings attached to patrimonial assets, national honor, and the mortgaged future of our grandchildren?

While on the subject, we suggest further that the President’s spokesman stop lying and denying the “verbal agreement” that Duterte himself said many times he had forged with his friend China President Xi Jinping on Chinese access to aquatic resources of the Philippines’ EEZ.

If the Palace continues to recast or deny declarations of the President when they become contentious, we have to ask that henceforth all his statements, speeches, messages, and “Tell the People” reports be made in writing, under oath.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 2, 2021)

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