While the Philippines has already received more than five million vaccines through the COVAX facility as of today, other Southeast Asian countries, including nations that managed to control the coronavirus last year, are struggling to contain recent outbreaks as vaccine shortages leave their populations exposed to the virus.
The issues of vaccine shortages and slow mechanism in vaccine delivery were foremost in the minds of some officials who attended the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Chongqing, China on Monday, June 7, 2021.
During the dialogue, China pledged priority access to the ASEAN Member States (AMS) in their fight against the pandemic “primarily through the provision of vaccines,” according to a statement issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Aside from enhancing public health cooperation and strengthening regional and global supply chains for medical supplies and equipment, China and the ASEAN agreed to further expand vaccine cooperation and promote “equitable access to and accelerate production and distribution of safe, effective, quality and affordable vaccines for all”.
Some ASEAN member countries are turning to China for help primarily due to certain issues associated with Covax, the global initiative led by the World Health Organization whose task is to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines especially to low-income countries like the Philippines and other ASEAN countries.
The COVAX project faces a number of roadblocks, including lack of vaccine supplies, a small number of listed vaccine manufacturers, sovereign legal immunity against vaccine exports, patent waiver uncertainty, limitations on vaccine-making supplies, inadequate logistics and distribution systems in low-income countries, and financial constraints.
As a result, some countries, including those in the region, have turned to alternative vaccine procurement mechanisms.
In the case of Cambodia, for example, vaccine delivery through Covax has been “slow” due to the purchase by wealthy countries of more vaccines than their populations actually require.
“Cambodia received more than 300,000 doses of vaccine from Covax so far, while many millions of doses have been purchased from or donated by China. In my view, we welcome all mechanisms that immediately respond to the real situation in Cambodia,” Dr. Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute told a newspaper in Phnom Penh.
Further, Cambodia also raised concern over the “insufficiency” of the COVAX’s minimum coverage target of 20 percent of the population to achieve global herd immunity, which would necessitate vaccination coverage of between 60 percent and 80 percent of the population.
Recently, the Cambodian Ministry of Health requested the United States a donation of four million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine but the country has yet to receive one to this date amid the latest uptick in the number of their COVID-19 cases.
This is why Cambodia has shrugged off criticisms about its close ties with China. “Who can I depend on if I don’t rely on China? Who am I to question if not China?” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said during a virtual conference hosted in Tokyo and streamed online on May 21.
Aside from donating to Cambodia, China also donated 300,000 doses to Myanmar and Laos, as well as batches to Brunei and Nepal. China has donated doses to a number of African countries, including Equatorial Guinea, Congo, and Sierra Leone. It has provided small quantities of vaccines to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria in the Middle East. China donated more than 600,000 doses to the Philippines after the country ordered 25 million doses, 500,000 doses to Pakistan after the country ordered 1.2 million doses, and 200,000 doses to Zimbabwe after the country ordered 600,000 doses.
Even President Duterte, in a taped broadcast on April 29, 2021 said the country owes China a huge debt, including the supply of COVID-19 vaccines for the Philippines.
“China is a good friend. Mayroon tayong utang na loob na marami, pati iyon bakuna natin. (We are in debt, even with our vaccines.) So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we do not want trouble with them, especially war,” he said in his weekly address.