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With Omicron rampage, Duterte admin must reverse unscientific and militaristic pandemic response

Repressive vaccine mandates will not solve health crisis but only exacerbate hardships of Filipinos

AGHAM – Advocates of Science and Technology for the People cautions the government on imposing discriminatory vaccination requirements in public transportation and other public services, citing that there is no evidence that such policy will curb rising COVID-19 cases as scientific literature shows that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals transmit the virus just the same [1]. The scientist group strongly urges the government to step away from and reverse its unscientific and militaristic approach to the pandemic and to urgently start the establishment of the vaccine manufacturing industry in the country.

The new year welcomed us with rising cases of COVID-19 in our country as the Duterte government refuses to address the pandemic scientifically. The Department of Heath has reported more than 10,000 new COVID-19 yesterday (January 5) adding to almost 3 million total cases. Modeling by several experts predicts further increase in the coming days.

With the upsurge in the number of COVID-19 cases, possibly driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant, the government has returned to its old formula in COVID-19 response: militaristic repressive measures based on unscientific grounds. Experience in almost two years of the pandemic has shown that it is ineffective and inefficient given that the crucial activities in a pandemic like mass testing, isolation, and contact tracing have been deprioritized. We are subjected to reused and recycled protocols that at most will pretend to curb the spread of the disease, but at worst will only make life miserable to the Filipino people due to strict lockdowns and other repressive measures.

The temporary slowdown of the pandemic before the December holiday season cannot be attributed to the government’s impositions since the amount of testing is very low and quarantine and contact tracing measures are too lax and full of loopholes. Moreover, strategic problems in data collection, management and reporting still exist. The slowdown could partly be due to some level of vaccination of the population, but given that it is still way below the so-called “herd immunity” level, it is likely that the slowdown is a result of the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant among the population. This means that so many COVID-19 cases remain unreported and could have driven the herd immunity-like slowdown in infections, which is plausible given that many people opt not to get tested for financial and practical reasons.

Repressive vaccine mandates will not solve health crisis but only exacerbate hardships of Filipinos

Vaccination mandates such as the one currently being floated by the government in public transportation will not solve the public health crisis and will actually submit the Filipino people, especially the poorer commuting class, to more hardships. Vaccination should be an informed personal choice and must not be forced upon the person. By imposing vaccination requirements in accessing public transport and other services, the government is forcing individuals to submit their bodies to vaccines even if it is against their wishes. Worse, these vaccine mandates will shift the blame to the people and hide the failure in the vaccination program and the whole pandemic response of the government.

Allowing malls and various establishments to open even with restrictions for the unvaccinated will still lead to community transmission of the virus since vaccinated people can still carry and transmit the virus. Forcing workers to vaccinate or be kicked out from work is contrary to public health as those workers who are not convinced to get vaccinated or are not eligible for vaccination for health reasons will become economically disadvantaged and thus will lose their capacity to maintain their health.

Questions surrounding vaccines remain in public discourse especially with various social media circles. Why is vaccination very slow and too tedious? Why does it require so much unnecessary personal data from the people? How are the data stored and protected? Why is the government avoiding accountability from possible adverse reactions to vaccines by requiring the people to sign waivers? Why are many Filipinos hesitant to avail of the freely distributed vaccines? These are questions that the government must answer and not hide under the rug through forceful vaccination mandates.

More importantly, it is not enough to promote mass vaccination without establishing our own national vaccine manufacturing industry. Promoting such is tantamount to the government being just sales managers for foreign pharmaceutical corporations. We have been urging the government since the start of the pandemic to build the country’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities especially in the production of vaccines. We have enough Filipino experts who can be mobilized to this end if only the government’s ears are open not only to foreign corporations but also to the local science and technology R&D sector.

Hold the Duterte government accountable to corruption in pandemic response funds

It should not be ‘here we go again’ response from the people, instead, it should be we know that this might happen again and we have created the conditions to prevent the worst scenario. A worst case scenario exacerbated by a kind of pandemic capitalism in cohort with bureaucrat capitalism that exploits the most vulnerable. If a response is replete with corruption, a Pharmally-like based response, that will be implemented again, we cannot expect anything better this year.

If testing, contact tracing, and quarantine are still treated as personal responsibilities, then we cannot expect a better scenario this year. We cannot play into the blame game that this regime is playing to force us to think that the problem is an individual problem. Blaming a regular citizen as the source of a spreading event distracts us from the fact that the main culprit behind the failure in curbing the pandemic is the Duterte government’s unscientific and militaristic approach.

The current pandemic is just one of the many more to come, especially with manmade and climate-driven ecological disturbance in areas of the world where all sorts of viruses are lurking and waiting to cause zoonotic diseases. It is high time for the government to pour investments into creating a scientific ecosystem that deals with emerging diseases. It must realign precious funds to establish local industries that would provide the necessary materials for developing medical supplies, testing kits, personal protective equipment, medical equipment such as ventilators, among others. Fund local development and production of COVID-19 RT-PCR detection kit, epidemiological modeling systems that can be used to monitor the spread of the pandemic, and 3D printing of face shields and various hospital items. We must learn from the past that an unscientific and militaristic COVID response would not resolve the threat of COVID-19 but will only exacerbate the worsening condition of the people.

If there is a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the reminder that the government must build the country’s industrial capacity to address various social problems including global pandemics and climate-related disasters. We are being reminded to vigorously pursue our industrial ambitions, from which the country has turned its back since the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1970s. We must locally produce vaccines and medicines. We throw this challenge not only to the current regime but more importantly to the next political leaders of the country. To Leni, Isko, Manny, and to the senatorial and congressional aspirants, step away from unscientific and militarist policies and from neoliberal over-reliance on imported goods. The much-touted “new normal” should be towards industrializing the country.###

End notes

[1] Singanayagam et al, Community transmission and viral load kinetics of the SARS-CoV-2 delta (B.1.617.2) variant in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in the UK: a prospective, longitudinal, cohort study, The Lancet Infectious Diseases (Published October 29, 2021) URL: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(21)00648-4/fulltext

Photo: Philstar

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