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A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: Getty Images

Were Philippine Covid-19 vaccines delayed for election purposes? Senators wonder

  • The country’s vaccine tsar Carlito Galvez Jnr has been forced to deny suggestions from senators that the government wanted to time the vaccine roll-out to coincide with next year’s presidential election
  • Claims came during a five-hour grilling of the embattled Health Secretary Francisco Duque over the government’s pandemic response
The chief of the Philippines’ coronavirus task force was on Wednesday forced to deny that the government was delaying its vaccination programme to gain an edge in next year’s presidential election.

Vaccine tsar Carlito Galvez Jnr was called to the stand during a nearly five-hour Senate grilling of the embattled Health Secretary Francisco Duque, himself under fire for what critics say has been a botched response to the pandemic.

As of August 23, just 13.2 million Filipinos – a little over 12 per cent of the population – had been jabbed in a country that has seen 1.88 million infections and 32,942 deaths and on Wednesday reported 13,573 new infections and 228 deaths.

Duque defended the government’s approach, telling the hearing that the presidential palace was aiming to achieve “herd immunity” – defined by the task force as vaccinating up to 70 per cent of the population – by February next year.

This invited a sceptical response from senators who noted the proximity of the presidential election in May.

Embattled Philippine health secretary Francisco Duque. Photo: EPA

“You are aiming for the elections,” Senator Richard Gordon, who chairs the Senate’s top anti-graft body the Blue Ribbon Committee, said bluntly, echoing government critics who have accused the presidential palace of using vaccines as a campaigning tool.

The Senate majority whip Miguel Zubiri also wondered if there was a link, pointing out that requests to purchase at least 10 million vaccine doses by local government units and 300 private corporations had been sitting on the vaccine tsar’s desk unsigned for months.

“The delay is not due to the 2022 presidential elections?,” Zubiri asked Galvez.

Galvez replied the delay was not intentional and denied that politics was behind it.

“It’s not like that,” he said.

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In the Philippines, vaccines are supposed to be purchased by a mix of the national government, local government units and private companies. Both local governments and private companies need the authorisation of Galvez, who has granted only a few requests.

Galvez said the delays to supplies for local governments and private companies were because Sinovac and Pfizer were prioritising requests from national governments, Moderna was no longer accepting orders; and Johnson & Johnson was “not open” to such arrangements.

He assured senators that by the fourth quarter of this year, “we will have enough [vaccines]”.

People wait to receive the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine in a school turned vaccination site in Manila, Philippines. Photo: Reuters

Duque under fire

The Senate hearing, which took place via digital conference platform Webex, will have been another uncomfortable experience for Health Secretary Duque, who was also grilled on various other aspects of the government’s pandemic approach. During a hearing last week, a rattled Duque had unknowingly had his microphone on when he muttered after being asked a question: “What’s that? My brain is already confused. I don’t know anymore [how to reply].”

In Wednesday’s hearing Duque also came under fire for transferring back 42 billion pesos (US$843 million) to the Department of Budget and Management without a memorandum of agreement to cover what the money would be used for. Part of the money was subsequently used to buy surgical masks and face shields that some senators said were overpriced and not authorised for purchase by the department. A budget official insisted a memorandum of agreement was not required and the purchases were legal.

Duque was also criticised for months-long delays in health workers’ hazard pay; for perceived failures in the government’s contact-tracing efforts; and for failures by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation to reimburse hospitals caring for coronavirus patients.

Health workers have threatened to resign en masse by September 1 if they do not receive the hazard pay. Duque told senators that papers were already being prepared to release 311 million pesos to 356,000 health care workers.
Healthcare workers ride on a makeshift raft during a Covid-19 vaccination drive in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: Reuters

However, he agreed with Senator Joel Villanueva’s assessment that contact tracing was “the weakest link” in the pandemic effort and said this was why he had asked for more funds to hire more contact tracers.

As for the hospitals’ reimbursement claims, Duque said Philhealth – which he chairs – would find a way to reduce what was owed to hospitals while weeding out fraudulent claims.

Duque’s performance during the pandemic has led to various calls from senators to sack him, but the president has so far stood behind him. Duterte is personally close to Duque’s older brother, Gonzalo, a law school classmate.

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Last week, Duterte had said, “Even if I am left standing alone, I will stand for Duque, even if it would bring me down.”

The night before Duque’s appearance before the Senate, however, Duterte appeared to have changed his tune: “If Duque offered to resign voluntarily, I would accept it,” he said. “But if you say that I [must] tell him to resign, that will never happen.”