Published December 11, 2020, 11:22 PM

by Tonyo Cruz


Tonyo Cruz
Tonyo Cruz

Mass vaccination against the coronavirus started this week in the United Kingdom, with a Filipino nurse administering the vaccine. Many Filipinos could only say: “Sana all.”

Some time earlier, the Japanese Parliament passed a law ensuring that all residents of Japan, citizens or non-citizens, shall receive free vaccination. No ifs, no buts, no special treatment. Everyone would be vaccinated.

According to the Milken Institute’s COVID19 Vaccine Tracker, which focuses on the United States, 237 vaccines are currently in development. 38 are in various stages of testing. Two are now under regulatory review.

One of the two already got approved in London, which made possible the start of mass vaccination there.

How about us?

For a government that for the past nine months sternly told the public that only vaccines could stop the pandemic, the Duterte administration still has nothing to offer, not even firm timelines on when the vaccines could arrive and when the vaccination could start.

As per reports, the 2021 national budget passed by Congress does not include adequate appropriations for mass vaccination for all Filipinos. Finance officials could only say that the government will be borrowing even more money from foreign governments to obtain the vaccines.

Every week, the targets change: We still do not know whether it would be 20 percent of the population, or 40 percent. As to the rest who may not be prioritized, nothing is being said. It is a safe guess, considering the circumstances since March, that they would be on their own.

It is also important to note that the vaccines have different storage, transfer, and other logistical requirements. If the government does not prepare for such requirements, vaccines could be ruined even before reaching many provinces of our archipelago.

The world now talks about mass vaccination, and yet the main story in the Philippines this week is about President Duterte’s Eureka moment, albeit belatedly.

“You know, what is important, in truth, and I realize now, it’s the testing—the swabbing and the test,” the president said this week.

It is a realization that took a long time coming. Public health, scientific and medical experts have recommended mass testing from the start.  The network Cure COVID, the group Scientists Unite Against COVID19, the health workers’ Second Opinion, and many other groups repeatedly prescribed and recommended mass testing. The World Health Organization also called for mass testing. Our own University of the Philippines scientists worked hard to produce a Philippine-made testing kit.

Testing is absolutely important so we would know who have been afflicted, and so they could be isolated and treated. Testing would also inform us who needs to be traced because they were exposed, and so they can likewise be tested and quarantined.  This regimen of testing, tracing and treatment helped many countries curb and control the spread the pandemic, without waiting for the vaccine.

The trouble since March is that testing had been made to look and sound bad.

For one, public officials who test positive for the coronavirus, don’t announce it matter-of-factly. They announce it apologetically or with deep sorrow as if it is a crime or a personal shame. It is not a crime or a shame. It also means that these officials should get proper and prompt medical treatment, and those they came in contact with traced, quarantined, and tested.

Many ordinary citizens who have since tested positive face economic hardship. Many frontline health workers also needlessly died due to the lack of PPEs, testing, and treatment in the early stages of the pandemic. Through the police-led lockdowns, the mandatory wearing of face shields,  the public health issue was transformed into a public security and personal discipline issue. Mass testing took a back seat.

No high-profile arrests or prosecutions were made against those who discriminated against frontline health workers and against persons who tested positive or have been quarantined for being persons under investigation or under monitoring. Strong political language and the strong arm of the law were mobilized against citizens demanding mass testing and emergency assistance.

Not all jeepneys are back on the road, with transport officials making unscientific demands for operators and drivers to tinker with the original, well-ventilated jeepney design to make them “suitable.” Our most popular mode of transport was indirectly, baselessly, and quite effectively viewed as a transporter of disease. Meanwhile, there’s no monitoring or enforcement of sanitation and tracing rules for owners and riders of private vehicles, and colorum vans that have since filled the void left by the ban on jeepneys. No mass testing yet for transport workers.

We could only hope that the President’s belated realization would translate to the adoption of mass testing. It could still be done, and we could have cities, municipalities, and provinces COVID19-free, even ahead of the arrival of the vaccines. Wasteful and non-productive appropriations, starting with the P19-billion NTF-ECLAC budget, could be redirected to mass testing and treatment. All hope should not be lost.

There are indeed many lessons to learn from the absence of or refusal to conduct mass testing since March, and from the President’s belated realization about it. The lessons could help light the way forward, even the conduct, scope, mechanics, logistics, and appropriations for the government’s plan for mass vaccination.