Philippines vaccine mandate sees millions facing COVID-19 test fees

·5 min read

By Ditas Lopez and Andreo Calonzo

Millions of Filipinos face having to pay for their own COVID-19 tests as a new rule mandating vaccines in workplaces comes into force, even as essential workers in some parts of the country struggle to access shots.

As of Wednesday, businesses will require employees entering offices to factories to be inoculated against the virus. The rule is being enacted despite the Southeast Asian nation having one of the lowest vaccination rates among major economies, with just 41% of the population inoculated.

While the government acknowledges many people haven’t been able to access vaccines due to logistical and supply delays, it’s making even those who haven’t been able to get a shot undergo regular PCR or antigen screenings at their own expense to be able to go to work.

Restaurants and government agencies will also be allowed to refuse entry or deny service to individuals who remain partly or wholly unvaccinated, with the measures part of a wider push by the government to boost the overall vaccination rate.

A woman wearing a mask is seen at a COVID-19 field hospital in Manila, the Philippines, Sept. 1, 2021. The Philippines crossed a grim milestone as COVID-19 caseload topped 2 million on Wednesday. (Photo: Rouelle Umali/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A woman wearing a mask is seen at a COVID-19 field hospital in Manila, the Philippines, Sept. 1, 2021. The Philippines crossed a grim milestone as COVID-19 caseload topped 2 million on Wednesday. (Photo: Rouelle Umali/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Authorities haven’t specified how often workers will need to get tested to access workplaces, but antigen tests typically cost around P2,000 ($40), while PCR tests can cost as much as P3,000-5,000. The gross monthly minimum wage in the Philippines was the equivalent of $10 in 2019, according to the International Labour Organization.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello told Bloomberg News the “ideal situation” would be for all workers to be vaccinated, to ensure workplace safety.

“Since we can’t compel them until there’s a law that would require that, the next best thing we can do on the part of the employer is to require them to undergo testing,” Bello said in an interview. “This requirement is conditioned to the fact that we have available vaccines.”

Bello said consideration would be given to workers from remote areas where access to shots was available but limited, and that the vaccine mandate and testing rule wouldn’t apply in these areas. He didn’t, however, elaborate or specify any locations.

COVID vaccines are widely available in Metro Manila, which accounts for a third of the Philippines’ economic output. Outside the capital region, however, widespread logistics challenges, from storage, to transportation to distribution, hamper people’s ability to get inoculated. Of the 35.5 million essential workers across the country, only 13.3 million were fully vaccinated as of November 29, according to government data. Besides poor access, the Philippines is also seeing some vaccine hesitancy, like in many parts of the world.

Sergio Ortiz-Luis, head of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, called it unfair to punish workers who weren’t inoculated because they haven’t had access to shots.

“Children are walking around the malls unvaccinated, yet you bar those who are similarly unvaccinated from earning a living,” said Ortiz-Luis, who is also the president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. “It’s punitive.”

‘No Choice’

Joey Concepcion, an adviser on entrepreneurship to President Rodrigo Duterte, said Wednesday that businesses would be more at risk of their operations being snarled by lockdowns if their workers were unvaccinated.

“Employees will eventually come to the realization that being vaccinated is important,” he said in an interview. “This is for the common good. Everyone’s health and livelihood is at stake.”

Philippine Retailers Association president Rosemarie Ong said more than 90% of workers in the country’s retail industry — one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic — had been vaccinated and the aim was to hit 100%, adding that they could not “survive” more lockdowns.

While the mandate follows similar restrictions in neighboring Singapore, which is limiting unvaccinated people’s access to workplaces starting January, the city-state’s inoculation rate is significantly higher at 89%, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. A national vaccination program run from Monday to Wednesday focused on six regions outside Manila, and had the goal of issuing another 9 million shots.

The new rule “was like an ultimatum for me,” said Bernardo Wabe, 46, a security guard at a state-owned bank in Manila. “I don’t want to end up working and using my earnings just to pay for my swab tests. I headed to the nearest vaccination site to get my shot last week.”

A girl is inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine at a sports complex in Marikina City, the Philippines on Nov. 29, 2021. The Philippines on Monday started a three-day vaccination campaign to speed up the immunization of the country's population against COVID-19 and its Omicron variant. (Photo: Rouelle Umali/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A girl is inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine at a sports complex in Marikina City, the Philippines on Nov. 29, 2021. The Philippines on Monday started a three-day vaccination campaign to speed up the immunization of the country's population against COVID-19 and its Omicron variant. (Photo: Rouelle Umali/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Wabe had waited even as the Philippines started rolling out vaccines starting in March. “I was afraid I’d get even more sick if I get vaccinated, but this time I really had no choice,” he said.

The Philippines has eased pandemic restrictions in recent weeks as cases have declined, including loosening up internal travel rules to bolster the economic recovery. But it’s rolled back the reopening to tourists as concerns rise globally about the new omicron variant, and closed the border to countries where the strain has been detected.

The vaccine mandate and push will “help sustain further re-opening and recovery of many businesses,” said Michael Ricafort, chief economist at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. in Manila. The measures will also help cushion omicron’s potential impact, he said.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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