The Philippine government, beset by charges of incompetence and corruption in its handling of the pandemic, has mounted a vaccination campaign that any of its Southeast Asian neighbors might envy. Over the course of just three days this week the country vaccinated 7.6 million people ages 12 and above. 34.53% of the country is now fully vaccinated.
Conky Quizon, field epidemiologist and member of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group, called it "a big, big deal" and put the unprecedented numbers down to easy access to the vaccines — there were 8,000 centers set up across the Philippines — and several different vaccines on offer, including Pfizer, Moderna and China's Sinovax.
There was also the bandwagon effect. "I think it's something cultural in the Philippines," Qiozon says. When you see so many people participating, she says, "you think it must be good, it must be safe, it must be efficacious if so many people are queuing. So I think that made a difference."
The thought of his workplace imposing a mandatory vaccination convinced Elmer Balanoyos, 33, a driver for a towing company, to get his shot. He says he was hesitant about vaccines, then discovered that no one he knew who'd been previously inoculated had experienced any bad side effects. Balanoyos is also worried about the much-mutated omicron variant, which has not yet emerged in the Philippines. "One of the reasons why I came here is because of the new variant," he says.
"Here" is the upscale Glorietta Shopping Mall in the commercial district of Makati city in Metro Manila, which usually teems this time of year with yuletide shoppers in Christmas-revelry in Catholic-majority Philippines. One of the cavernous halls in the complex doubled this week as an immunization site.
Jocelyn Gorzon, 48, joined the throngs waiting for a jab, overcoming her fear of needles. She works as a domestic for a family in a wealthy enclave nearby, and her employer told her she needed to get vaccinated. "Everybody in the house [is] except me," she says, adding, "It's good for all of us."
Dante Caburnay, 26, was auditing a store in the mall and dropped in to get vaccinated. He says he would never have considered a vaccine were it not for the fact he soon plans to propose marriage on the resort island of Boracay, where a vaccination is required. With Christmas music wafting in the background he says, "So I'm left with no choice."
It's no coincidence the country's most ambitious vaccine effort to date coincided with the run-up to the holidays. Philippine families traditionally assemble for large multi-generational gatherings, and health officials have said the vaccine campaign is intended to provide Filipinos greater protection during this busy social season.
The government is also interested in promoting economic activity. Christmas is normally a time of strong retail sales ignited by employee bonuses and remittances from Filipinos working overseas. Relaxed lockdowns are already pulling more people into the malls but strapped Filipinos reeling from the pandemic-induced downturn may be unable or unwilling to spend.
Quizon says the harsh financial realities of a severe COVID-19 case are also persuading people to get immunized. She says it's not unusual for critically ill patients to wind up with hospital bills totaling 2 million pesos, or $40,000. Even after government insurance pays out, she says patients are left owing as much as $24,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
Quizon says ordinary Filipinos are beginning to realize they had "better get themselves vaccinated because you really cannot afford to be sick."
Fortunately, the government's vaccination effort has developed a momentum of its own. Organizers, who had hoped to vaccinate 9-million people in three days, have encouraged municipalities to leave the sites open to take advantage of the high public interest.
News of the week's impressive turn-out was a welcome respite for pandemic-weary Filipinos. They've lost more than 48,000 people in one of the region's worst COVID-19 outbreaks. Their economy has been decimated in nearly two years of off-again-on-again lockdowns. And the country has been judged a laggard in the region, rolling out vaccines slower than many of its neighbors. Even after its successful vaccination drive the country has inoculated just over a third of its 110-million people. By contrast, Vietnam has immunized 55% of its population, and Cambodia has fully vaccinated 81%.
As vaccinations have risen, new daily infections in the Philippines have also dramatically dropped. The number of new cases in the past week is 4,300 compared to 146,000 the week of September 5-11, the record high.
University of the Philippines professor and pandemic analyst Guido David says, "Last year, the country plateaued at around 2,000 cases a day, and now we're way below that. And the vaccines seem to be helping." He says the estimated 2.5% positivity rate compared to the 24% rate during the September surge "does confirm that the number of cases have decreased significantly." The country's largest COVID-19 referral medical facility, the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, reports that no new COVID patients have been admitted in the last 2 days.
However, the number of deaths the past week—807 – is unusually high considering the low number of new cases.
There's another theory for the drop in cases. David submits that perhaps "40 to 50% of the entire population" may have already been exposed to COVID-19 but not all of them have been counted in the country's tallies. David says because "there is no incentive" for the Philippine masses who struggle financially to spend money on expensive testing, many cases of the virus are not recorded. And if that's the case, he says the virus has been circulating naturally, and by default, providing broad immunization.
David says with the latest vaccination push the country may have turned a corner.
But President Duterte sees no reason to relax as the omicron variant gains ground globally. With characteristic bluntness he urged people to get vaccinated. This week he told his countrymen to choose: "Early demise or live longer?"