"Duterte, not surprisingly, was effusive about the Chinese gesture."
On March 1, 2020, the national government finally began its much-delayed anti-COVID vaccination program. More than 200 government health personnel and other officials were inoculated—a small but significant number, given that the government was starting from zero in its fight to neutralize the worst virus to attack mankind in the last 100 years.
Monday’s rollout came a day after 600,000 Sinovac CoronaVac doses, airlifted to Manila by the Chinese military, were personally received at the airport by President Duterte at rites fit for a visiting dignitary, with seven senior cabinet members and the entire high command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police in attendance. The 600,000 doses, a Beijing donation, were worth P400 million according to Health Secretary Francisco Duque.
At Sunday’s vaccine arrival ceremonies at NAIA were Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., the People’s Republic of China Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Health Secretary Francisco Duque, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, the National Task Force Chief Implementer and Vaccine Czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., National Task Force Deputy Chief Implementer Secretary Vivencio Dizon, Senate Committee on Health Chairman Senator Bong Go, AFP Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana and the other members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, PNP Chief Police General Debold Sinas and the other members of Philippine National Police, Philippine Armed Forces Commanding General Lieutenant General Jose Faustino, Philippine Air Force Commanding General Lieutenant General Allen Paredes, Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, Philippine Marine Corps Commandant General Ariel Caculitan, and Philippine Coast Guard Commandant General George Ursabia Jr..
Right there at the tarmac, Duterte could have conducted an impromptu cabinet meeting jointly with the military high command to tackle a major national security or geopolitical issue like the Visiting Forces Agreement or China’s incursions into the South China Sea, and changed the course of history.
Duterte, of course, knows his history. The Chinese were in the Philippines 400 years before the Americans came. His family has deep ties with the Chinese, long before he became president. The Chinese probably helped bankroll his presidential run in 2016 that resulted in a historic plurality. And of course, China, today in Duterte’s view is the Philippines’ biggest trade and investment partner, banker, and most reliable friend.
Addressing a hastily assembled audience for the CoronaVac arrival, Duterte not surprisingly was effusive about the Chinese gesture.
“We welcome this day with high hopes of finally ending the COVID-19 pandemic in our country. Today, we make another step in our ongoing fight against COVID-19,” he began.
“I convey my sincere gratitude to the Chinese people and the government of China for this gesture of friendship and solidarity—the hallmark of Philippines-China partnership. I also thank Secretary Galvez and Team Pilipinas for working very, very hard. And I would like to personally thank Ambassador Huang Xilian for helping ensure the timely delivery of this donation,” the President said.
As he ended his speech, Duterte promised Ambassador Huang: “Maybe at the end of the year, when everything has settled down—I intend to make a short visit to China to just shake hands with President Xi Jinping and personally thank him for this donation.”
The chief executive explained why the Philippines should be given its share of global vaccines despite being late in the global vaccine purchasing game.
“COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as a global public good and made available to all, rich and poor alike. No nation, no people should be left to suffer the ravages of this pandemic for whatever reason,” Duterte stressed, adding, “comprehensive global recovery hinges on equal and easy access by everyone to life-saving vaccines. Because, at the end of the day, as repeatedly said, no one is safe until everyone is safe. Countries must therefore continue working together and do everything humanly possible to ensure a good outcome for every person.”
Duterte expressed confidence “more batches of vaccines will be available with great dispatch until every Filipino will be given the chance to be vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Indeed, Foreign Secretary Locsin, Philippine Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez, and container port and casino king Ricky Razon have wangled a 20-million-dose deal from Moderna for delivery during the second, third and fourth quarters this year. About 12 million of the doses will go to the government; 8 million will be kept by the private sector to inoculate the workers of companies, big and small. Ambassador Romualdez said another 6 million doses are being negotiated with Johnson & Johnson, for delivery, also this year.
At Sunday’s vaccine arrival ceremonies, Duterte assured Filipinos “your government remains committed to a timely rollout that will enable us to confidently reopen our society.” The delivery of this first batch, he hopes “will serve as a guarantee to everyone that we are taking a big step in our efforts to overcome this health crisis.”
The President knows the urgency of the situation. “We cannot afford to waste time or resources in the distribution of these vaccines because we are dealing with precious lives,” he said.
Duterte urged his countrymen: “Please set your fears aside. These vaccines are backed by science and deliberated on by our experts —Filipino experts. I encourage you to get vaccinated at the soonest possible time and be our partner in preventing the further spread of the disease.”
But will the President have himself jabbed with the Chinese vaccine? He was asked during an impromptu press conference after the ceremonial turnover of the Chinese shipment.
He was forthright with his answer. “We who are in [our] 70s, we have to be careful. My doctor thinks I should wait for another brand. I will be 77 next month. I have to take care of my age.”
As regards vaccines, Duterte tried to explain the caution with people 70 and above: “It’s either because they are nearing death or about to die or it could be useless to give them the vaccine because anyway they won’t live long. I really do not know the rationale of the whole thing.”