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As the country's COVID-19 vaccination finally gets going, what's next?

By Bim Santos Published Mar 01, 2021 3:30 am

The country’s flagging confidence in the protracted battle against COVID-19 now got a shot in the arm as the government’s vaccination campaign finally started today, even as the road to recovery remains long and challenging.

Yesterday, Feb. 28, President Rodrigo Duterte said he may consider lifting business restrictions once the country gets a hold of two million vaccines. Duterte’s statement came after the arrival of Sinovac’s donation of 600,000 vaccines over the weekend, the first COVID-19 vaccines that arrived in the Philippines.

Return to normal?

But he also mentioned that while restrictions may be gradually lifted as the vaccination moves along, it may not be until 2023 when the Philippines gets back to “normal.”

“Early in the first maybe or second quarter of year ’23, 2023, baka… tulong ng Diyos,” Duterte said in a press briefing on when the country could get back to normalcy.

Duterte’s forecast is in line with previous estimates made by business leaders, like Ayala Corp. chair Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala who has said that the economy may only bounce back to its pre-pandemic level by the tail-end of 2022.

In an interview today with PTV, Trade Sec. Mon Lopez said Duterte refers to a phase where every restriction imposed due to the pandemic has been rolled back.

“Yung nire-refer ng pangulo is pre-pandemic level na wala na talagang restrictions brought by the virus,” said Lopez. “Pero unti-unti na tayong nagbubukas.”

The country’s gross domestic product, a broad measure of the goods and services produced in a period, sank to its lowest level last year since 1946 due to the lockdown, crashing to negative 9.5%.

Lopez, however, is optimistic that the vaccination will slowly restore business activity.

“Itong nangyaring start ng rollout nitong umaga can only bring heightened optimism sa ating lahat,” Lopez said.

The government’s rosy economic forecast is that the country’s GDP will grow this year to 6.5-7.5%.

Efficacy issues
Besides restoring business activity and consumer confidence, another challenge for the government will be to convince Filipinos to take the jab due to wavering confidence in vaccines, or for some, Chinese vaccines.

Philippine General Hospital Dr. Gerardo “Gap” Legaspi acknowledged the surprising turnout at the first day of vaccination, following the arrival of Sinovac’s donated CoronaVac doses.

Legaspi, who was first on line to receive the first dose, said they only expected around 20 health workers to receive the jab, which was voluntary, due to the expressed hesitation of a number of people.

Eventually, the turnout went far beyond to 100, with the last being vaccine czar Carlito Galvez.

“We are stopping it at 100 kasi ceremonial lang naman dapat ito. We will do more tomorrow at mas pagagandahin natin ang sistema tomorrow para mas mabilis,” said Legaspi.

The expectation of a low turnout came as some members of the healthcare community remain apprehensive on taking Sinovac’s Coronavac jabs. This came after Food and Drug Administration director general Eric Domingo said Coronavac is not recommended for healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients due to its 50.4% efficacy rate in clinical trials for the said group.

Kung takot kayong mamatay, kunin niyo na ito.

Domingo made the qualification after the FDA approved Sinovac’s emergency use authority. 

The best vaccine
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Edsel Salvana, who also had the jab at PGH, sought to allay concerns regarding Sinovac at the press conference. Salvana said that though Sinovac has 50% efficacy rate for mild symptoms, it has a 100% efficacy rate for severe symptoms.

“Kung takot kayong mamatay, kunin niyo na ito,” said Salvana. 

“The best vaccine is the vaccine that is in your arm,” Salvana added.

Galvez said they are hoping to vaccinate all the country’s one million-plus healthcare workers this March.

Galvez said there is no definite date yet for the delivery of the initial batch of AstraZeneca’s 17 million doses, which has been delayed due to “acute global shortages and logistical challenges.”

There is also no expected delivery for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, coursed through the COVAX facility.

“Ongoing pa rin negotiations, sila pa rin ang hinihintay natin,” said Galvez.

Galvez, however, said that they are hoping to receive 3.5 million doses in the first quarter from COVAX, a global initiative led by the World Health Organization to ensure equitable access to vaccines.

Though the country, or even the world, is not yet out of the woods, the government nevertheless was effusive in thanking China for donating the country’s initial batch of vaccines. Duterte even said that he plans to visit China to personally thank President Xi Jinping.

“This gives all Filipinos hope na talagang matatapos na ito,” said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. “The arrival of the Chinese vaccines is unquantifiable in pesos and cents.”