FIRING LINE: Thinking outside the vaxx

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By Robert B. Roque, Jr.

No amount of denial from the government erases the fact that its strong-arm measures to restrict the mobility of unvaccinated individuals in the country right now are discriminatory.

First, the unvaxxed were prohibited from entering restaurants, malls, and other closed-door commercial and personal service establishments; they were even barred from churches. Then, they were told not to leave their houses except for essential errands. Starting yesterday, they were barred from taking any mode of transportation.

I understand that many of us might have been blinded from seeing all these as discrimination because the premise set before us was the greater good. In this case, we are made to believe that curtailing the rights of the unvaccinated has become necessary to curb the widespread transmission of COVID-19.

The mantra of every government agency since President Duterte threatened to arrest those who refuse vaccination yet wander in the streets is that the new set of measures is what’s best for the greater majority. Some even stretch this point to say it is what’s best for everyone – “to protect the unvaccinated from a severe or deadly infection.”

But as of late, many enlightened minds in government are questioning these premises altogether. For example, Senate President Tito Sotto argues the lack of definitive laws to enforce such measures as the “no vaccination, no ride” policy. Likewise, Senator Koko Pimentel challenges the constitutionality of keeping a national inventory of unvaccinated individuals to ensure they are monitored to stay at home.

With later studies showing that the fully vaxxed can be infected with the now-dominant Omicron variant and transmit it to others, just as the unvaxxed can – it appears that the intent of this toughened stance against those without the jab is to get them inoculated.

In light of this, Sotto called for alternative ways of persuasion to counter vaccine hesitancy. Former senator-now-Governor Chiz Escudero of Sorsogon lamented how the government’s tone shifted from incentivizing the vaccinated to disincentivizing the unvaccinated. Sotto even asked: What about the unvaxxed who already survived COVID-19 with now higher neutralizing antibodies against the virus; are we punishing them, too?

The strategy has sadly changed. It used to be that having a vaccination card got you a discount on groceries, a freebie at restaurants, an express lane at a government counter, a roleta prize at the door of the gym, free delivery on purchased items, a pack of rice and noodles from the barangay or even a free ride to the vaccination site. So what awaits those who sit on the fence for a jab – a fine and jail time?

Let’s be clear. I believe it is for the greater good if every Filipino is fully vaccinated and, in time, given a booster to avoid a fatal episode with COVID-19 and a straining of our healthcare system. But I also believe that it should not happen at the expense of trampling on the rights of the marginalized – the 30 percent of the target population who remain unvaccinated. They are roughly about 18 million of our “kababayans.” Is not the protection of their fundamental rights in the craziness of this pandemic part of the greater good, too?

Let’s not discriminate.

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