There is an open disagreement between Cabinet officials over a proposal to require beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), some 4.4 million Filipinos who come from the poorest of the poor, to have themselves vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition for receiving their cash dole out.
The Health Secretary is opposing such a scheme, describing it as discriminatory. Vaccines, he said, have nothing to do with dole outs.
For the first time, I find myself agreeing with the Health Secretary. But I would add that this proposal is not only discriminatory. It is patently anti-poor.
The pandemic and the lockdown imposed by government, regarded as the longest though not the most effective lockdown in the world, has affected all sectors and economic classes. But it has hit the poorest of the poor, already living hand to mouth before the pandemic, the hardest. With millions thrown out of jobs, the ranks of the poor and unemployed have even swelled. The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) sees more people struggling below the poverty line until 2022.
The pandemic has disrupted government’s ambitious plan to reduce poverty to 14 percent by 2022 in order to be classified as a middle-income country. In February, NEDA projected that the poverty rate will average between 15.5 percent and 17.5 percent this year.
It even reached a point where the Social Weather Stations (SWS) introduced a new category – “catastrophic” – to describe the record-high levels in poverty, hunger, and unemployment “not seen in 30 years of survey.”
Since last year’s lockdown, government has disbursed cash assistance that many considered a pittance. Yet for the poor, the beneficiaries of 4Ps particularly, cash assistance, no matter the amount, is always welcome. Still, gainful employment remains an aspiration.
The much-touted vaccination program which is central to economic recovery is slowly unravelling. Recently, it was announced that essential workers, categorized by government as economic frontliners, have been bumped up the vaccine priority list, a move welcomed by the private sector and the workers themselves. But the jubilation was short lived. The Health Secretary admitted that there are not enough vaccine supplies to inoculate essential workers, as this would require 24 million additional doses which the government does not have at this time.
There is also the festering problem of vaccine hesitancy. The February survey of Pulse Asia says safety and efficacy are the main reasons why 61 per cent of the population are reluctant to have themselves vaccinated against COVID-19.
This sentiment is shared by 90 percent of respondents from Metro Manila, but it is also the main reason cited by respondents from Balance Luzon (86 percent), Visayas (80 percent) and Mindanao (80 percent).
And vaccine hesitancy cuts across all economic classes, namely Class ABC at 68 percent, Class D at 59 percent, and Class E at 62 percent.
In this context, the proposal to require beneficiaries of 4Ps to have themselves inoculated as a condition to getting their cash aid is a cop out. It is government taking the short and easy route in order to meet its vaccination target without breaking a sweat. But it can also be seen as taking advantage of the poor’s vulnerability. It implies that for some officials in government, the poorest of the poor, unlike the other economic classes, are not entitled to informed consent. They do not have the right to choose the vaccines or decide if they want to have themselves vaccinated.
Adopting similarly harsh measures to induce the middle and upper classes to have themselves vaccinated will surely create a firestorm. The proposal thus zeroes in on the voiceless poor, who, by their economic circumstances, have no means to express their outrage on social media, and would most likely accept their fate. The proposal punishes the poor for their aversion to vaccines. It also punishes them for their poverty.