Flexibility needed

Published June 16, 2021, 12:23 AM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

The Department of Health (DOH) has disclosed that some 1.8 million Filipinos out of the government’s downgraded target of 58 million have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which means they have received the required two doses that ensures full efficacy.

But unlike senior officials who are fond of making bold declarations that would later unravel, an undersecretary at the DOH was more sober and circumspect about the prospects of achieving the vaccination target within the year. He was quoted in media over the weekend as saying: “This will take a long time.”

Previously, government blamed the low vaccine turnout on vaccine hesitancy. But more and more people are now asking to be vaccinated. Many of them are essential workers who have been recently included in the priority list and, according to government, may now be inoculated against the virus.

Economic planners are pinning their hopes for an economic revival on having these workers vaccinated. With a workforce protected against the virus, more businesses and industries will be able to resume operations, and more Filipinos will be able to get their jobs back or get new jobs.

If some members of the economic team may sound persistent, if not desperate, in their push for the mass vaccination of workers, it is perfectly understandable. Unemployment rose to 8.7 percent in April, according to the latest figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority. This means some 4.14 million jobless Filipinos, up from the 7.1 percent, or 3.4 million who lost their jobs in March.

The economy is considered the worst performer in the region. Development agencies expect us to be among the last countries to recover from the pandemic’s fall-out. It seems that every window for a re-opening usually closes after a period of one to two months when the virus returns, often with more ferocity. And this has been the pattern since last year. Unless government steps up on testing, contact tracing, and vaccination, it appears we would be trapped in this pathetic loop.

Even the chief implementer of the vaccination program acknowledged that vaccinating essential workers would be a major challenge because of limited supplies. The Health Secretary himself had admitted government would need to secure an additional 22 million doses for essential workers alone. To date, government says it has so far vaccinated 127,614 essential workers. It had announced a target of 12 million.

So the question is, why announce it at all? Why did the national government declare it would be vaccinating essential workers when the vaccine supply is not enough?

As I have said, the government played a cruel joke on workers. It’s another government publicity stunt at the workers’ expense.

Now, government says it is allowing micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to purchase their own vaccines. But like the larger enterprises, these companies still have to go through the national government via a multilateral agreement with the DOH, National Task Force, and the vaccine supplier.

This requirement for a multilateral agreement is unnecessary. If government wants to fast track the vaccination of employees in the private sector, including MSMEs, then government should allow them to buy directly from suppliers or manufacturers. Government should not intervene, as this only adds another layer in the process.

We have been under a state of emergency since last year. Yet there seems to be no sense of urgency and out-of-the-box thinking among our senior officials. Their first instinct is to control. But this approach is turning out to be unsustainable, and often causes undue delays in implementation.

If we really want to re-open the economy, there should be no room for red tape and government control. If government wants to meet its goal of vaccinating 12 million essential workers, then it should learn to let go and let the private sector take over. It should learn to be flexible and make room for private initiative.

The problem with government’s pandemic response, including the vaccination program, is that decision-making is too centralized, perhaps too centralized for its own good. It may even be a case of centralized inefficiency.

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