Vaccine as a human right

Published January 21, 2021, 12:39 AM

by Senator Francis Tolentino


Senator Francis N. Tolentino

There is a consensus around the world that the provision of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 to the majority of the world’s population is crucial in achieving herd immunity and preventing more deaths and lifelong health complications among patients. For countries whose economy has felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, it will hasten economic recovery. It will also enable the measured lifting of quarantines and other restrictions on movement and travel leading to the reopening of schools and business establishments, the resumption of social and cultural activities, and the gradual return to normalcy for human beings.

In a statement last 17 December 2020, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UN OHCHR) recognized that affordable, non-discriminatory access to a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 is a human right. The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges that immunization is a key component of primary health care and “an indisputable human right.”

Under domestic law, the human right to a vaccine amidst a pandemic is subsumed in the right to health, which is a state policy under the Constitution. The Constitution mandates the State to protect and promote the right to health of the people, and to adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach to health development which shall endeavor to make essential goods, health, and other social services available to all the people at affordable cost. Republic Act No. 11494, the “Bayanihan to Recover as One Act,” which provides the legal framework on the government’s pandemic response, requires the state to establish mechanisms to treat COVID-19 cases to mitigate the transmission of the disease and prevent further loss of lives. These mechanisms include the procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to our people, especially to our healthcare personnel and other frontliners, the underprivileged, the poor, and the marginalized.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Philippines has an obligation to recognize the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. The convention outlines some of the steps to be taken to achieve the full realization of this right, including the prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic and other diseases. The ICESCR obliges state parties to recognize the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. In a Statement dated 15 December 2020 (E/C.12/2020/2), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which oversees the implementation of the Convention, said that a vaccine against COVID-19 is a key component in the realization of the human rights to the highest attainable standard of health and the enjoyment of the benefits of science.

The Philippines’ mass vaccination plan to inoculate at least 70 million of its population against COVID-19 fulfills domestic and international obligations on the human right to a safe and effective vaccine.

However, the state fulfillment of this right is a landmine of challenges. Most concerning is the lack of guarantee for equitable and universal access to vaccines given the current global economic order. As developed countries begin to innoculate millions of their citizens after securing the lion’s share of vaccine doses, developing countries, such as the Philippines, are left scrambling for vaccines after securing massive foreign debt to finance them. The WHO called it a “catastrophic moral failure.”

Within the Philippines, the projected vaccine rollout beginning February entails enormous financial and logistical challenges. Congress must address gaps in our laws and government agencies must design comprehensive administrative procedures so that vaccines are distributed efficiently and without delay even in far-flung areas of the country.

In September, 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted an Omnibus Resolution, entitled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic,” recognizing that extensive immunization is a global public good which would help bring an end to the pandemic. In the Philippines, the unity and cooperation among the national government, LGUs, and the private sector is indispensable in ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines are made available to every Filipino, everywhere.