Philippines Launches Vaccination Program: Normalcy and Travel Dependent on Vaccination Success

by Edwin Quinabo

Travel plans have been altered, rescheduled, often cancelled altogether since the global pandemic started. The ever-shifting state of lockdowns and quarantines from country to country keep travelers second guessing: “Is it really smart to plan, pack, and go abroad?”

Hawaii economists and tourism heads are expecting a visitors boost to our state this summer. Confidence in US domestic travel is high as COVID-19 infections decline and vaccinations rise.  Hawaii’s Filipino community are also eager for a change of scenery, some longing to return to their ancestral homeland, the Philippines, where extended family resides and happy youthful memories call for a second, third chapter.

But at this very moment, is the Philippines a traveling destination option? The resounding answer is no, at least not yet.

Filipinos are recommending their kababyans abroad and family to delay any plans until the pandemic situation there improves. Technically, only Filipino citizens, former Filipino citizens, foreign nationals with visas, diplomats and other select groups can enter the country at this time, according to the Philippine Bureau of Immigration’s latest Travel Advisory.

“Due to the high number of active cases in the Philippines, travelers are advised to defer their travel to the country,” said Andrea Christina Caymo, vice consul, Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu.

Experts say opening travel to the general foreigner-tourist eventually will largely depend on inroads made in vaccination and herd immunity, while containing new, more contagious variants from spreading. How is the Philippines faring in these areas?

Vaccination Rollout
The CDC reported that 60% of adults in the US received at least one COVID-19 shot by mid-May. The high vaccination rate has been largely responsible for the US’s fast-paced COVID recovery since the start of the year. As a region, Asia is lagging far behind in vaccine rollouts. Our World in Data reports in the region, Singapore has the highest vaccination at over 20% of its population, followed by Hong Kong 12%, India 9%, South Korea and Indonesia 5%.

The Philippines (along with Japan and Thailand) has the region’s lowest vaccination rate with less than 2% of their population receiving at least one vaccination shot, as of mid-May.Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr., who leads the COVID-19 national task force, said the government aims to inoculate between 25 million and 50 million Filipinos by September this year.’The vaccination roll out kicked off this May 1.Galvez, Jr. and public health officials believe for herd immunity to happen, an estimated 70 million of the country’s 108 million people need to be vaccinated.

At the current rate, the government is way behind target. Currently only 2.4 million Filipinos have received vaccination, that’s about 1.3% of the population.

At the end of the second week of May, Reuter’s COVID-19 tracker shows, the Philippines averaged about 67,652 doses administered each day. At that rate, it will take a 320 days to administer enough doses for another 10% of the population.

Dr. John Wong, a member of the government’s coronavirus task force’s data analytics team, estimates 350,000 people are needed to be vaccinated a day so the government could meet its target of immunizing 70 million of the country’s population, this year. Government officials estimate the pace of administering vaccines should pick up as vaccine inventory increases.

In the first week of May, 2 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived through the COVAX facility, an international partnership established to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. Two days later, 193,050 doses of donated Pfizer vaccines also from the WHO-led COVAX facility arrived.

At the end of this month, 194,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine is expected to arrive.

But there are other vaccines already in storage besides AstraZeneca, Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that include: SinovacSputnik VJanssen, and Covaxin. Sputnik V is developed in Russia; Sinovac in China. Janssen is the vaccine put out by Johnson & Johnson.

The Philippines’ FDA is also allowing for limited use unproven and controversial Covid-19 treatments like Remdesivir and Ivermectin, despite warnings by health experts.FDA Director-General Eric Domingo said Remedesivir and Ivermectin are not technically approved by the FDA but are given only a special permit for use. The decision to use these drugs will be left to doctors.

The US has pledged to share AstraZeneca on hand and in production, with approximately 60 million doses available in the next two months. The criteria for sharing that inventory to other countries is in progress.

Florangel Rosario Braid of Quezon City, Philippines, said the delay of vaccines was caused by the hesitancy of government to start the rollout because of the then lack of available vaccines. “This is reportedly due to the quality checks that had to be done. Now that they have arrived and are in storage, we are still confronted with a lack of vaccination centers and refusal by some to be inoculated,” said Rosario Braid.

Dr. Tony Leachon, former government pandemic adviser, said “We need vaccine awareness, promotion and good supply management to get the vaccines administered to as many at the fastest time possible, and with least amount of wastage.”

JB Sampaga, 21, Metro Manila, said “I’m glad that more and more people are getting vaccinated in our country but we still need to be vigilant especially that the [coronavirus] cases are still rising and more variants are entering the Philippines. We need more response and protection, not just relying on the vaccines.”

She adds the vaccines are a huge help. “We’re still pretty slow, but it’s a good start. I hope the government will allow the private sector/employers to buy vaccines for their employees.”

April Surge, May Recovery, Cycles of Lockdown and Quarantine
Currently, the Philippines is crawling out of its second wave of the pandemic, a surge that started late this March, that experts have attributed to the holiday festivities. Daily COVID-19 infections were as high as 10,000 daily in April. It hit a daily peak of 15,310 in April 2.

President Rodrigo Duterte responded by imposing a lockdown in the nation’s capital and nearby regions for two weeks. That lockdown effected 25 million people.

By mid-April, improvements in the number of those infected led to the President adjusting the lockdown to a modified “general community quarantine.” This allows for businesses to open, limited travel, limited dine-in and outdoor dining, until the end of May. But Roman Catholic religious festivals common during this time are still barred.

“General community quarantine” is the second-lowest level quarantine.

“It honestly feels like every two to six weeks, they alternate between a lockdown and a modified lockdown. Nothing is happening. Cases are still rising. New variants are entering the country. People are losing their jobs. Students are dropping out. We’re barely even surviving,” said Sampaga.

“And when organizations and normal citizens do something to help the community, the government’s response is praising Filipino’s resiliency during these hard times. Like no, this is not the time to patronize your own people. We need your help. We need the government’s help to survive.”

Government’s Performance
Like Sampaga, other Filipinos have expressed frustration over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Wilhelmina I. Neis of Mandaluyong City, said “our government could do better. It has been more than a year since the virus affected the Philippines and there has been no improvement. Many believe that the various tasks regarding COVID prevention, monitoring, support, cure, etc. could be handled by those who are better qualified.”

Neis says the government needs to improve its vaccination program. “I for one, am a senior citizen and have pre-registered for vaccination, but until now, I have not received a confirmation nor any response.”

Celee Tang of Metro Manila said, “Definitely, the way the government has handled this pandemic is very unsatisfactory. Examine the qualifications of the people in the government, how they react to opinions, suggestions. We have very defensive people in government.”

Tang also expressed doubt over the government’s tracking of COVID. “I am not sure if the information from government is reliable. I personally gauge my assessment from actual experience with people we know, in certain areas in the country.”

Sampaga said, “I know lockdowns worked in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan… but the thing is, they had an action plan beyond just keeping everyone in their homes. Our government had no action plan. No mass testing. Slow vaccination plan and processes. No support to the people to ensure that we can still survive during lockdowns. The only reason they keep lifting the lockdown every time the cases dip (even a little) is for people and businesses to keep operating even if they’re risking their safety.”

Joel Tomas said contact tracing is poor. He gives an example, “arriving Filipinos who have undergone the required RT PCR and mandatory quarantine often are never contacted or monitored by the agencies when they are at home to continue their home quarantine (10th to 14th day).”

He says on curfews, “it should not only be done when COVID-19 is rising, but continued to virtually eliminate non-essential movement after midnight.”

Tomas also is critical of public transportation. “Strict implementation of physical distancing and sanitizing vehicles (LRT/MRT, jeepney, taxi, grab and the like) after each one cycle are not practiced.”

Government has not stepped in to correct practices that could be spreading the virus.

His tip to officials, “Our government should always check with successful countries like Israel, Australia to name few, who are doing the right things. Our government should also look at other countries where COVID-19 cases are growing like India. “In both cases, our government can pick the valuable strategies that work and avoid those that do not work. The government needs other input to succeed,” said Tomas.

Calibrating public health and the economy
Astro del Castillo, managing director at First Grade Finance in Manila, said “Despite the general community quarantine relaxation, it still seems restrictive in terms of movement.”

The Philippines isn’t unique in government’s aim to finding a calibration that takes into account first public health, but at the same time, considering how lockdowns and modified quarantines are impacting the economy.

In the first three months of 2021, the Philippines’ GDP shrank by 4.2%. This is the fifth quarter of COVID-19-related recession.

The economy fell 9.6% in 2020, the lowest since 1947.

Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Budget and Management Secretary Wendel Avisado have been pushing for further easing of restrictions to enable economic growth and to improve the jobless situation.

The nation’s economic managers said in a joint statement, “It has been 15 months since COVID-19 hit us. Throughout this unprecedented crisis, the government’s priority has been the total health and welfare of the people. Our aversion to risk for the most part of 2020 has placed the country in a long period of quarantine. This came at a huge cost to the economy and the people. This cannot go on in 2021.”

The three said the target of 6.5 to 7.5% growth for this year is still their goal for the country. But they said attaining that will depend on how effective the government can ramp up vaccinations.

On the public health side, the numbers show the Philippines is the second highest among Southeast Asian countries in COVID infections and deaths. As of mid-May, there has been a total of 1,124,724 reported cases, 18,821 deaths, according to the Philippines Department of Health (DOH). Over 11.6 million have been tested for COVID-19 since January 2020.

From the perspective of Medical Workers
Philippine health care workers said the recent second wave last month stretched health care workers like never before. For comparison, March 2020 saw 213 infections per day. March 2021 saw on average over 10,000.

Intensive-care units in the Manila area were at 84% capacity, while 70% of COVID-19 ward beds and 63% of isolation beds were full as of April 19, government data showed.

Similar to peaks in the US when hospitals were at or near full capacity, the Philippine Red Cross set up field hospital tents outside of hospitals, last month. Unused buildings were converted to temporary hospital rooms used to house COVID patients with less severe symptoms.

Asked about specific challenges he encountered as a medical professional during COVID, Mark Henry Joven, M.D., said “Because of fear of getting COVID-19 in the hospitals, some patients, and their love ones, insisted on staying home even if there was a need to get treated in the hospital. Unfortunately, some of these scenarios resulted in deaths, not from COVID-19, but from other conditions like pneumonia, heart attacks, and other commonly encountered conditions.”

Fear is a real concern not just among patients, but for medical professionals. “My fear is getting COVID-19 from a patient and infecting my family with it. I have a relative who passed away from this and my fear is re-experiencing this over again. It’s tragic,” said Dr. Joven.

Dr. Maria Lolita R. Uy, a pediatrician at Taytay Doctors Multispecialty Hospital in Taytay, Rizal, expressed similar feelings of fear. “We fear for our lives as front-liners. We are exposed to COVID-19 cases which can cause us to possibly lose our lives. But we have to continue with our work because that is our job and that is what our work calls for.”

DOH data showed that 17,909 Philippine medical workers, primarily nurses and doctors, have contracted the COVID-19 virus; and 80 health care workers have died from it. “The hospitals are still getting patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 infections. Now, compared to early last year, we have some confidence in managing patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms at home. A lot of doctors, including myself, have been doing telemedicine, and it works and is very convenient,” said Dr. Joven.

He thinks by the end of the year there still will be clusters of outbreaks in the community. He has two hopes: one is that there will be some form of normalcy happening in the community; and his second hope, he says, is “to someday, be able to bring my son out again since he missed a lot of his childhood from this pandemic.” He admits that being home together with his son more has brought them closer.

Dr. Uy hopes that herd immunity will come soon. But she emphasized that can only happen through vaccination. “I encourage more people to get vaccinated.”

“The hospitals are still getting patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 infections. Now, compared to early last year, we have some confidence in managing patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms at home. A lot of doctors, including myself, have been doing telemedicine, and it works and is very convenient.”

– Mark Henry Joven, M.D.

Life in the Philippines since COVID
The reason why some question the accuracy of the government’s statistics on COVID-19 is because it’s very common for people to know of friends or relatives who’ve contracted the virus. Some believe the numbers should be higher.

Some experts agree. Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire admitted that the reduced number of confirmed cases reflects “low testing output” from accredited laboratories. Duplications and misreporting of active cases have also led people to question the government’s official numbers.

“I have some friends who got COVID 19 and recovered. I also lost one relative (my uncle) and some friends from the virus,” said Neis, adding that her friends who’ve recovered from the virus gave her useful information on symptoms and prevention.

“Each time we hear of a life lost due to the virus, our anxiety increases because we can feel that the pandemic is real, that the virus is everywhere and that it can hit anyone.”Like most Filipinos, Neis follows safety guidelines of wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and abiding by lockdowns and curfews.

Tang also knows several people who’ve contracted the coronavirus, her son-in-law, relatives of close friends and a few people from her Bible studies classes.

Tang says those who have enough savings, the effects of Covid has been “good in a way, in that there has been more time for family bonding. Life also has been simplified.” She said, those most hurt are the daily wage-earners, which are a lot of people.

Tang mentions the drop in quality of education. “Education of our children in public schools has deteriorated. How can online education be effective – especially if some students access to the internet is poor.”

Sampaga said, “For students, the whole online classes are definitely exhausting. I help my little sister attend her online classes everyday via Facebook Messenger. Yes, my first-grade sister who goes to a public school does her classes through a messaging app. Facebook Messenger offers free data usage to Filipinos making it the most accessible online tool for everyone. Those who do go to a private school/institution, online video classes via Zoom are possible but studying and staying motivated is, of course, difficult. Certain classes are also impossible to do remotely. So, some college students are graduating late or worse, they had to stop taking classes.

“My sister is in first grade… she won’t be able to understand her teacher’s lessons through chat. I’ve had to be there with her to actually teach her and guide her through her learning modules. I find it really tiring because I’m not a teacher. I’m not trained to teach kids concepts in a simple way. It’s even harder for the child to understand when the teacher (aka me) doesn’t know how to explain the lesson.”

A major change in lifestyle under COVID is giving up social interactions. “The norm for most people would be that of having to postpone vacations and travels within the country and abroad, cancel receptions for weddings, anniversaries and office and family parties, or attendance of live concerts and shows. Meetings have migrated to digital platforms through Zoom. Lack of face-to-face communication had forced many to use Facebook and the social media. Even funeral masses are now held virtually,” said Rosario Braid.

Like in the US, Rosario Braid said the delivery industry has taken off during the pandemic. “Delivery riders from small enterprises like Lala Food, Grabfood, Food Panda, and several from other delivery apps, are now considered part of our frontliners. Some market vendors in Metro Manila markets have become enterprising, hiring riders to deliver to their suki customers’ fresh fish, veggies, fruits, meats and other fresh produce.”

Tomas raised the point that not all business can be conducted on social platforms. When travel restrictions are in place, some projects just have to be put aside until a better time comes around. “This affects financial earning.” He said business opportunities that are linked to foreign investments are limited at this time. Again, “this means lost potential financial earning.”

“I know lockdowns worked in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan… but the thing is, they had an action plan beyond just keeping everyone in their homes. Our government had no action plan. No mass testing. Slow vaccination plan and processes. No support to the people to ensure that we can still survive during lockdowns. The only reason they keep lifting the lockdown every time the cases dip (even a little) is for people and businesses to keep operating even if they’re risking their safety.”

– JB Sampaga, Metro Manila

Prediction for end of year
Rosario Braid said he would like to be positive and hope that herd immunity can be attained by the end of this year. “But others doubt that and believe it would take more than a year to reach the desired goal.”He said what would help is for the government to give away extra vaccine to the private sector to administer.

Like in the US where the quality of managing the pandemic has had political consequences, Rosario Braid believes “management of COVID-19 could become the litmus test in determining fitness for future leadership of the country.”

Neis isn’t optimistic of much gains between now and the end of the year. “At the rate we are going, most likely there wouldn’t be much change than the current situation,” she said.

Like Rosario Briad, Sampaga said the private sector would be able to help with administering the vaccines to the masses. She said by the end of the year, lockdowns and modified lockdowns will be more manageable. “I hope that we can contain the new COVID variants as well.”

Tomas believes the Philippines will have “a very hard time to attain the 70% vaccination by the end of the year.”

Tang has a religious take on COVID’s future. “Only in God’s time, this pandemic will end. No medicine can stop this without God’s grace.”

On a wing and a prayer, Filipinos are hoping for an end to the pandemic as millions around the globe.

Related Stories:
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