The United States, suddenly, is releasing vaccines to the rest of the world after blocking supply deliveries to anyone other than itself, including to allies Canada, Mexico and India. When India, suffering from over 450,000 infections and over 4,000 deaths a day, saw some of its cities and hospitals turning into funeral pyres, asked for US help even with just raw materials for vaccines, the US turned it down while it hoarded more than what it actually needed.
Beyond not helping, the US has even been demonizing China for its “self-serving vaccine diplomacy” in helping over 70 other countries despite its having vaccinated fewer than 10 percent of its own population at the time.
“It’s outrageous ethically, morally, scientifically,” Maria Van Kerkhove, epidemiologist of the World Health Organization (WHO), said. The US turnaround in the vaccine non-assistance policy came after great international pressure from the rest of the world, experts, NGOs and celebrities. Perhaps Germany buying Russian vaccines, on top of Chinese vaccines gaining approval, had influenced the US backflip.
French President Macron called on the United States to “put an end to export bans not only on vaccines but on vaccine ingredients…100 percent of the vaccines produced in the United States are for the American market” (BBC, May 2021). He claimed that the United Kingdom had placed restrictions on vaccine exports. Prime Minister Johnson previously denied there is a ban. Publicly available information, however, suggests vaccines are not being exported from the UK.
In a great show, the US has decided to share leftover AstraZeneca vaccines that its Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved for its own people. Use of these vaccines had been temporarily suspended for further examination by nearly 20 countries, including many European Union and Western countries, in March. “Given the strong portfolio of vaccines that the US already has and that have been authorized by the FDA and given that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorized for use in the US, we do not need to use the AstraZeneca vaccine here during the next several months,” according to US Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.
Should the Philippines be grateful for more soon-to-expire leftovers? The country was saved from a far longer, deeper recession and poverty traps by an independent foreign policy of a generally logical, if dramatic, President Duterte who arranged for Chinese vaccines to come in the millions months ahead of schedule, when the Philippines was not given any allocation of the Western vaccines, which were expected to just start deliveries only in the third or fourth quarter of 2021.
Vaccines are the most valuable exports in the world today, saving populations and economies. Yet, some politicians and local opposition continue to demonize China’s and Russia’s assistance to the world, while contributing nearly nothing in most cases until forced to, and much of the help initially made up of its unwanted, soon-to-expire-stock at that.
In fairness, AstraZeneca has been certified as a viable vaccine. Nevertheless, the message is that risks are still too high for the West but not for developing countries.
Misinformation and politicization of vaccines have become weapons to attack others or influence choices, often making it harder to convince people to accept vaccination, damaging economies and creating more poverty and causing more deaths. Rumors of infertility, unqualified reports of deaths and test-result efficacies without giving statistical perspectives or sampling basis of information, quoting experts out of context or without balancing views of other experts, non-disclosure of conflicts of interest, accusing others of using vaccines to push political considerations like territories and military bases can be verified but usually are not. Some cultures are more logical and solid in orientation of decisions, but most are not, and the power of media is great.
When the Philippines received the 3rd batch delivery of Russia’s Sputnik vaccines, Rappler reported, “The Philippines has received only 80,000 doses of the Russian jab, a far cry from the 480,000 doses expected in April.”
But when the US had ignored appeals for assistance earlier, and recently still had only promised to deliver its surplus not-to-be-used vaccines, Rappler said, “The donation is part of President Joe Biden’s earlier pledge to donate 80 million vaccines to different countries,” without mentioning that the US had blocked shipments even to allies for months and did not allow AstraZeneca for her own citizens and were nearing expiration.
In the same article, Rappler only mentioned China’s 1 million vaccine donation but not the priority delivered of some 4 million vaccines already protecting our Filipinos.
Hopefully, we can be more balanced and objective in our reporting in the spirit of public service that we speak about so passionately.
Approval by the WHO of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines will give us new real choices of vaccines that are available, rather than just saying that the Philippine Department of Health “dropped the ball” where acquiring Western vaccines was concerned, according to our ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez. Fact is the “America First” policy made sure that even First World countries could not have significant doses of Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, etc.
This will also enable us to activate the $1.2-billion loans the Philippines was able to secure from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to fast-track procurement of actually available vaccines. The $300-million loan from the AIIB is another testament to the benefits of the Philippines diversifying its economic partners. Thanks also to the previous administration’s economic ministers who, in the face of strong US lobbies to not join, convinced then-President Aquino 3rd to join the AIIB.
Money is just one factor, though. We still need to convince the people to be vaccinated with two doses, control government leakages, minimize wastage, improve logistics and make entrepreneurs and bureaucracies reactivate soonest.
It is our public duty, and currently highest priority, to help also convince Filipinos to lower health risks together.
Industrial Revolution 4.0 has begun. Some of our neighbors have left the starting line. We will have no one to blame but ourselves again for another generation if we don’t kick off. Let us get out of this emotional cycle of excuses and take every positive step forward together.
(Similiar version also published in https://www.manilatimes.net/2021/06/06/opinion/columns/rappler-and-vaccines-us-politicized-hoarded-donated/1802087)
Jan Albert Suing has been conducting policy research for both the public and private sectors with some of his works published in “Population Ageing in the PH: Issues and Challenges” and “Towards an Asean Parliament: Challenges and Prospects.” He taught at Far Eastern University and received his master’s degree from UP Diliman.