Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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FIRING LINE: The 5th czar

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By Robert B. Roque, Jr.

Once again, President Duterte has exemplified his predisposition for assigning former military officers in his choice of a “vaccine czar” – retired Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr.

I’m not one to join the chorus line, chanting: “militarization!” In fact, I might count myself among the 80 percent of Filipinos surveyed who said they’re “satisfied with the government’s response to COVID-19” (at least 50 percent of the time).

So while the President’s COVID-19 response team already consists of four czars – testing czar Vince Dizon, treatment czar Leopoldo Vega, tracing czar Benjamin Magalong, and isolation czar Mark Villar – I find it an absolute need to assign a fifth czar fully dedicated to the task of procuring vaccines.

Looking at it from Duterte’s standpoint, it’s easy to surmise how he made his choice. “I am the Chinaman bringing a lamp in the daylight,” Duterte begins his anecdote in a press briefing last week. “Then a friend asked, ‘Why are you bringing a lighted lamp when it is daytime?’ And he said, ‘I have to see clearly because I am looking for an honest man’.”

The President relies so much on the “unquestionable love of country” of striped and starred men in uniform because he finds it challenging to find an honest man in government. He sees that Galvez has already proven his mettle as National Task Force COVID-19 chief implementer. He sees a standup guy with whom he can entrust the purse. No questions about that.

But there are though realities that beset the vaccine czar. According to the World Health Organization, only two billion doses can be rolled out by the end of 2021 – whichever it is among the 170 candidate-vaccines now in various stages of development.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez estimates P20 billion is needed to give 20 million of the poorest Filipinos the doses for free. The Alliance of Health Workers pointed out the additional P27 billion earmarked for the Department of Health’s pandemic budget next year is not enough. And out of that, only P2.5 billion is the initial allocation for vaccines.

Given that Galvez takes charge of a sufficient amount, health reform advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon warned that procurement could be a logistical nightmare even for the top guys of LBC, FedEx, or DHL whose domestic and international experience in these things are extensive, because the requirements would be massive, rapid and unprecedented.

Then, there’s the poor batting average of the Philippine International Trading Corporation, an attached agency of the Department of Trade and Industry tasked to purchase COVID-19 vaccines from foreign makers, as pointed out by Sen. Ralph Recto. The uniformed services are no stranger to this claim because of the mortifying delays in their emergency purchase orders made through the PITC.

So, the 5th czar is up to a big task and will need a great deal of help to make sure the Philippines is not too far down the list in a world where rich countries developing these vaccines are already the top priority. On a positive note, at least the President did not pick DOH Sec. Francisco Duque, III.

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SHORT BURSTS. For comments or reactions, email or tweet @Side_View. Read current and past issues of this column at
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