Debating things to death
There is a basic truth about living in the Philippines, and it is this: those who try to abide by the rules more often than not get punished for it. A corollary truth can be proposed: those who try to solve problems in the Philippines get crucified for it. But the clincher is the fine print that accompanies every assertion just like these two previous ones: things are never as they seem. Two things are happening at present, which further illustrate these three things.
The first is the explosion in interest in getting vaccinated because, at long last, the country is escaping, somewhat, the Sinovac straightjacket. A situation we were forced into by the government, which didn’t follow through in obtaining Pfizer’s vaccine early enough, which only got a trickle of AstraZeneca only to stop its distribution over apprehensions over side effects, and which called on the private sector to help with vaccine procurement—but only after imposing all sorts of conditions and restrictions, when the private sector was frankly desperate to get its managers and workers, and their families, vaccinated as soon as possible. Last November there was a great deal of fanfare about big business rallying around the flag, to help buy vaccines, but when March rolled around and the poor and millionaires alike were dying in hospital hallways and driveways, both millionaires and the poor found themselves having to decide if they would settle for Sinovac or continue to wait for long-delayed vaccines. A surprising number opted to take the risk of waiting it out anyway.
All along, the surveys told us there was a great deal of vaccine hesitancy, attributed to “concerns over efficacy,” which turns out to be a euphemism for mistrust of the only choice in town for many months. Last Monday a cellphone video circulated showing a frantic mob of people waiting to get vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine; it turns out the video was taken in Ayala Manila Bay, and what seems to have happened was that the guards got confused and allowed in, not just those who’d received LGU text messages to show up to be vaccinated, but the broader public which had heard about it and turned up on the slim chance they might get lucky. An ABS-CBN reporter mentioned yesterday that Manila has 18 vaccination centers featuring Sinovac that have plenty of stock and low traffic; while in one place, where 900 Pfizer first doses were prepared, 3,000 showed up.
There are two terms I learned in government that explain much of what makes this country an exercise in treading water. They are: “absorptive capacity” and “the last mile.” Absorptive capacity is basically the inability of government to digest its food (in this case, our taxes) because its implementing agencies lack the expertise to plan, manage, and undertake projects. The last-mile problem is how expensive and difficult rolling any plan or service out, in the many remote and hard-to-reach places of our archipelago, which is why rural electrification seems always a century behind schedule.
This connects to the second thing happening at present. The debate over the proposal for a “mega” vaccine facility on government-owned land (Nayong Pilipino) as proposed by tycoon Enrique Razon. By all accounts, Razon should get a medal and not face a storm of protest (online, anyway). After all, unlike the many AstraZeneca public-private schemes that seem to have failed to prosper, Razon bagged a mega-deal with Moderna for its vaccine with mind-boggling numbers: 7 million doses (good for 3.5 million individuals) for a private sector consortium under him, and 13 million doses (good for 7.5 million individuals) to be donated to the government for public use. With this relatively huge contribution to the hard-to-reach vaccination goals of the government, the cheering should be non-stop.
But Razon, after all, operates one of the biggest political parties as a kind of corporate subsidiary in the same manner that other tycoons such as Ramon Ang and Manuel Villar do. The site he wants to use is too conveniently close to his other businesses to make a skeptical public comfortable; and this skepticism (perhaps, like the French, we are congenitally mistrustful of the rich, on the conspiratorial principle that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime”) is underlined by the public failing to see how it makes sense to operate a mega site inaccessible to public transportation, or why more efforts aren’t made to bring vaccine administration closer to the people. Government seems unable to articulate an answer, while the voices of people actually possessing logistical experience seems glaringly absent.