Duterte’s “solution”: Wait for a vaccine
“WE ARE awaiting for God’s blessing na magkaroon tayo ng vaccine either from sino diyan na bright boy: China, Russia, America. I’m sure na kung meron na sila, they will share it with the rest of the world.” First said on April 1, two weeks after he ordered the lockdown of Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon, President Duterte’s words revealed the absence of any master plan to protect Filipinos from the COVID-19 contagion except to wait for a vaccine.
In the months that followed, the lack of a national plan began to tell on the fight against the pandemic. Most national agencies followed his lead, leaving it to local governments to set up their own system to implement restrictions and to do what they could to control the spread of the disease. The first lockdown was a one-size-fits-all approach, with little consideration for the condition of poor communities, or its impact on the economy.
With no vaccine, Duterte promptly declared that schools would not open as scheduled. But he did not explore what could be done with remote or online teaching and learning. There was no instruction to other departments to activate a plan of action in their special areas of responsibility: centralized transport systems, sustaining the food supply chains as well as the movement of resources so as not to strangle the economy. More directly related to the threat of the disease itself, DOH was slow to implement ramp up testing, not knowing that this has to include contact tracing to be an effective tool. The mere reliance on the eventual development of a vaccine demotivated all efforts to coordinate, collaborate, to explore how lives could be protected and livelihood sustained.
His much anticipated COVID-19 recovery roadmap, as touted by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, was nowhere in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) five months later on July 27. Responding to criticism, Duterte said he could not have said anything about a roadmap because “the medicine must come first.”
After claiming that he had pleaded with Chinese president Xi Jinping to prioritize providing to the Philippines once China develops a vaccine, Duterte shifted his attention to Russia’s vaccine, which the country announced on August 11 to be the first approved COVID-19 vaccine in the world.
More recently, reports played up announcements from DOH and DOST that they have been meeting with pharmaceutical companies and vaccine developers from different countries. Aside from procurement, these reports referred to clinical trials, with some areas already identified for pilot testing.
Much of media coverage of these developments lacked context and analysis. Journalistic skepticism did not drive reporters to ask about measures to assure vaccine safety, what actions should be taken within time frames, as no one can say exactly when a vaccine can be released for wide public use. What happens in the meantime while government waits for the vaccine?
Each time Duterte goes on the air to talk about the pandemic, he repeats his claims about his supposed efforts to secure a supply of the vaccine once it is available.
The Philippine media have allowed government to dominate the narrative during the pandemic, and news reports have done little to question the lack of action and the generally passive approach that government has adapted in dealing with COVID-19.
In his August 28 address, despite his reliance on the development of a vaccine instead of on a coherent plan to combat the pandemic, Duterte said “there is no magic bullet” against COVID-19. Indeed, every country which has succeeded in bringing down the number of infections and slowing its spread has had to combine many steps and many measures. Duterte, however, has dangled the false promise of a vaccine as though it were already within reach.
A few exceptions
Back in May and July, VERA Files, GMA Digital Specials and ABS-CBN Online produced useful fact-sheets and video explainers about the stages of vaccine creation and testing. But with Duterte’s repeated claim that he is working through his friendly connections to secure a supply of the vaccine, media have neither revisited these sources nor shared new references to help the public understand the long and multi-layered process of vaccine development.
CMFR cheers the following efforts to check the government narrative.
Waiting for a vaccine does not constitute a plan. Rappler’s July 29 report, “Why Duterte shouldn’t just wait for a vaccine from China” referred to a Foreign Affairs analysis piece on “vaccine nationalism.” Simply put, countries manufacturing their own vaccine will likely prioritize themselves without an international, enforceable commitment to distribute the vaccine equitably.
Emphasis on a possible cure sidelines the primacy of preventive measures such as contact tracing and mass testing, areas in which government response is either lacking or inadequate. Gideon Lasco, a physician and medical anthropologist, noted this in “The perils of vaccine messianism” in the Inquirer’s September 4 issue. Lasco enumerated other dangers attendant to a singular focus on a vaccine, such as risking the use of a rushed vaccine that may prove unsafe, and boosting the political capital of otherwise ineffective leaders.
Interaksyon had called attention to this issue of vaccine safety in its August 12 report “Keep hopes in check: Filipinos reminded of hastened approval of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine.” The article featured a tweet from a medical student, who shared an infographic on vaccine development as seen in a pharmacology textbook. The student scored the lack of data from the first two phases of the Russian vaccine, pointing out as well that none of the other vaccines in development have been approved for commercial dissemination. Interaksyon also referred to other medical experts and groups monitoring vaccine trials, all of whom questioned Russia’s apparent lack of transparency about its vaccine.
A vaccine is an ultimate solution, not just for the country but for the rest of the world.
But media reports should help people understand the uncertainty of the availability of an adequately tested, safe vaccine. Furthermore, the press has to check the haste with which government may use a vaccine that has not yet gone through the requisite clinical trials. Media’s responsibility includes questioning the government narrative that it can do nothing else except wait for the vaccine.
‘Do not project certainty where it doesn’t exist’
Duterte’s vaccine discourse has not only gone unchallenged. It has also provoked few counter-narratives from the rest of media. The global scientific community has made known the limits of its knowledge about the SARS-COV-2 virus. Media should observe similar rigor and restraint when reporting on vaccines and cures, especially when presented by politicians who have no competence on the subject.
The New York Times has comprehensive interactive trackers on COVID-19 vaccines and treatment. Updated daily, these pages offer data for in-depth coverage.
Writing for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of the Harvard Kennedy School, Kerry Dooley Young reported ways of improving news coverage of vaccines. Young sought insights from sources with expertise who are studying or reporting on vaccines. Some of the tips they offered:
(1) Understand the various levels of clinical trials
(2) Exercise discretion in referring to announcements about scientific data
(3) Explain the limits of vaccines and possible side effects
(4) Explain the demographics of the pools of patients
(5) Build a network of sources who understand research data
Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, provided the most important advice: “Please do not project certainty where certainty simply doesn’t exist.”