Editorial: 'Inching' towards recovery

·3 min read

Access to vaccines will bring the Philippines to recovery.

Last March 2021, when the Philippine government started the roll-out of the vaccination program, Cavite resident Minaret was hopeful that the country would survive the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

On March 4, more than 480,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the Philippines from the Covax Facility.

The Philippines was one of the first “low- to middle-income countries” to benefit from an international partnership aiming to equitably distribute Covid-19 vaccines around the world.

For Minaret, the availability of vaccines eased deep anxiety for herself and her family that they were at risk of severe illness, death and the costs of hospitalization and cessation of work.

“With every dose that we will administer, we are inching towards a safer recovery from this pandemic. So, let us put our trust in science, in vaccines. Together, we will rise as a nation and heal as one,” vowed Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III.

On hindsight, Minaret now finds the health secretary’s choice of verb—“inching”—as appropriate.

Six months after the Philippine roll-out of Covid-19 vaccination, she received her first dose of Sinovac vaccine on Sept. 14, 2021 from a local government unit (LGU) outside her residence, mainly due to a college classmate, a City Hall employee who managed to get a Covid-19 vaxx appointment for Minaret.

In 2021, extreme difficulties to get a vaccine pushed many Filipinos to network with friends and relatives just to get a vaxx appointment. Others missed work and pay so they could line up at dawn to get inside a vaccination center, only to be turned away when the doses ran out for the day.

Filipinos’ anti-vaccine belief and vaccine hesitancy continue to be cited as factors behind the country’s slow “inching” towards full vaccination and recovery from Covid-19.

However, according to its Independent Auditor’s Report dated on July 20, 2022, the Commission on Audit (COA) pointed out gaps in the DOH handling of the pandemic. State auditors gave an “adverse opinion” on the financial statements submitted by the DOH as of Dec. 31, 2021, noting that the submitted documents “do not present fairly... the financial position of the (DOH)” due to misstatements in the accounts covering billions of pesos in assets and liabilities.

The DOH also failed to submit to COA documents tracking transactions aggregating P5,829,833,179.33.

In its 2021 audit, the COA found institutional impediments obstructing the DOH’s delivery of services. “The lapse of unutilized allotments and low utilization rates indicate the inability of the DOH to maximize the utilization of its budget,” pointed out the COA.

Disheartening for taxpayers like Minaret is the COA finding that “lack of adequate needs assessment and weakness in safeguarding of government assets” resulted in the waste of P55,200,000-million worth of mobile X-ray machines, which were declined by or unused by recipient hospitals. One unit was delivered to a private hospital in violation of government regulations.

Distribution of Covid-10 supplies and equipment was marred by intended recipients not receiving the supplies; supplies directed to unintended recipients; and discrepancy in the volume compared to the volume indicated for distribution.

The COA recommends that the DOH must have a plan to avoid wastage and near-expiry of vaccines; 32,724 doses of Covid-19 vaccines were wasted while 12,854 vials reached near-expiry in 2021. Also expired or nearing expiry was P85,213,729.61 worth of DOH drugs, medicine, and other inventories.

The COA recommends that the DOH properly dispose of empty vaccine vials following government guidelines for the management of health care waste.

The COA report underscores that as the lead agency in promoting public health, the DOH should revitalize its system to ensure citizens’ access to resources and services is efficient and equitable.