Do the math

By: Peter Wallace - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | March 18,2021 - 08:00 AM

Last week, I raised the first problem that needs to be resolved in achieving herd immunity: willingness to be vaccinated. With only 19 percent of Filipinos willing, according to a survey by the Octa Research Group, herd immunity is not achievable until you convince 70 percent of a vulnerable population to be vaccinated. That means some really effective promotion and information campaign is required. It should not end up where vaccination becomes mandated, which would just show that the government has failed at its task and has to bully its people. That’s not a good image to have. If someone doesn’t want to be vaccinated, let them make that choice. Just don’t go to their funeral, as it wouldn’t be safe.

Once the people are convinced, then it has to be done—across about 7,000 islands, 146 cities, 1,488 municipalities, and 42,046 barangays, and in a country where the logistics of transporting goods is, to put it mildly, poorly organized. The scale and coordination that’s going to be needed here—something like this has never been done before. Getting the vaccines to the hospitals and clinics with injection-trained personnel is going to be the next potential nightmare.

After that is to do the vaccinations in the volumes necessary to get us out of this crisis not too far behind the rest of the world. We are already well behind the rich countries, which expect to achieve herd immunity by the third quarter; and behind in all but Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Brunei in Asean. Quite frankly, there is no chance of catching up, but we should at least try to close the gap.

At the rate we’re going, however, this seems a long way off. Do the math: There are 110 million Filipinos. Let’s assume 10 million live in very remote villages with negligible, if any, contact with COVID-19. That leaves 100 million. For herd immunity, the general assumption seems to be that 70 percent of the populace needs to be vaccinated. Seventy percent of 100 million is 70 million. If we want to achieve herd immunity by this time next year, we need to inoculate close to 200,000 Filipinos daily with their first dose. At present, we’re inoculating 11,000 a day. To get to 200,000, you need to increase the vaccination rate by almost 20 times, as most of the vaccines need two doses. So you have to double it. That means two years, not one—or 400,000 daily, not 200,000.

Knowing some of the people in the IATF, I have full confidence that they’ve thought this through and have plans in place. But they’re dealing with a bureaucracy that’s anything but efficient, and local governors and mayors whose competence, or lack of it, varies widely. So the way it’s now structured, unless a miracle occurs, we could be looking at 2024 before we are safe to get out and mingle and do our jobs unimpeded.

One thing I’d do is step aside. The IATF should not try to control it all, it’s too big a job. Let competent mayors and businessmen order directly from any of the FDA-approved manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines without national government approval, just notification.

Don’t impose a 100-percent tax on business imports, because that’s what requiring companies to give 50 percent of their order to government is. COVID-19 vaccines should be, and must be, tax- and duty-free. By allowing companies to buy for their employees and families FDA-approved vaccines and, why not, anyone else, they are relieving the government of a financial and logistics burden it should welcome, given the huge toll on resources COVID-19 has imposed. Control can be done through reporting: Report who you have vaccinated, so the government doesn’t have to seek them out. There seems to be skewed thinking here.

The other problem that allowing direct orders helps resolve is availability. I don’t know how many doses the government has confirmed orders for (I see conflicting numbers) but I’m sure it’s well short of the 140 million needed.

They are reportedly negotiating for more, but with around 190 countries all seeking supply, the Philippines will have difficulty reaching those numbers, even with the best will in the world. It’s good that vaccine czar Carlito Galvez has gone to India to seek additional supplies; that’s an avenue that could well alleviate the problem.

Still, even if we get the supply needed, 70 million Filipinos have to be jabbed. So we will likely remain a long way from settling into our new normal way of living. It’s all in the numbers.

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TAGS: herd immunity, IATF, OCTA research, vaccinations

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