Vaccine hopes and fears

Iris Gonzales delves into some of the reasons why the vaccine rollout in her country is encountering drag.

Credit: Sarah John

Jomel Sarmiento can’t wait to be vaccinated against Covid-19. But the 25-year-old, who runs a mobile-phone and watch repair shop, has no illusions. He is in the lowest-priority group – ‘other workers’ – and thinks he could be waiting until the second half of 2022 before he gets a shot.

‘I am not an essential worker, so I just have to wait,’ he says.

Jomel’s biggest fear, after the virus itself, is that by the time his turn comes, the jabs may no longer be free.

The odds of getting a vaccine in the Philippines, if you don’t belong to any of the priority groups (senior citizens and people with serious medical conditions and comorbidities), are a bit like those for winning the lottery – only for the lucky few. Economic high-flyers seem to have no problem, along with members of the military, the police and workers deemed to be providing essential services – such as those who staff grocery stores and pharmacies.

At first glance, the process seems easy enough. You just need to register with your local government unit (LGU) via an app you can download on your mobile phone or laptop. However, for those living below the poverty line, with hardly any access to the internet or even a smartphone, registering in this manner becomes a big obstacle.

Nida Mateo, who lives in an informal slum community in the city, had almost given up hope. A freelance seamstress and mother of two, she had seen her income dry up since the pandemic struck last year, with few clients bringing her work. Worried about the greater risk she faced from Covid-19 due to being overweight, she was stymied in getting vaccinated by her lack of internet access and technological knowledge. She said she wouldn’t even know how to begin to download the app.

Many of her neighbours are in the same boat when it comes to internet access and dealing with apps or filling out online forms.

Fortunately for Nida, the daughter of one of her friends is tech savvy and volunteered to register her on the LGU’s vaccine platform. Nida’s weight was in her favour for once; it was why she was able to secure a slot. In June, to her great relief, she received her second shot of the Sinovac vaccine
in the basketball court of a private school.

Nida is thankful to the government for providing free vaccines but laments how difficult the process is for those, like her, who can’t deal with the technology involved.

But there is also another problem, one that is out of the government’s control. Nida says some of her neighbours do not want to be vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy is indeed one of the problems some LGUs are facing, especially those in the provinces.

Much of it can be traced back to a health scare in 2017, related to the Dengvaxia vaccine against dengue fever. The jab, which had been cleared by the World Health Organization in 2016, was administered by the Philippine Department of Health to schoolchildren. But the programme was brought to a halt when Sanofi Pasteur, the maker of the vaccine, advised the government that it could actually increase the risk of disease severity for some people who had received it. Fears of vaccines have lingered since then.

Our hardline president, Rodrigo Duterte, has in typical fashion threatened people with jail if they refuse to be vaccinated. There is no denying the dark cloud hanging over the country, which has had one of Asia’s worst outbreaks of Covid-19.

Even my parents, both 74 years old, don’t want to be vaccinated. As members of a generation leaning towards traditional medicine, they think the vaccines could negatively impact their ageing bodies. Instead, they take coconut oil and ginger tea every morning in the belief that these are preventive measures. I have yet to succeed in convincing them to get vaccinated.

Only time will tell when the Philippines will finally achieve herd immunity. But the tedious registration process and vaccine scepticism aren’t helping.