COVID-19 response in the Philippines and Taiwan — a tale of two governments

Two things caught my attention in the Twitterverse today: President Tsai Ing-wen’s tweet thanking the recognition of Taiwan’s effort to control the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID)-19, and the infographic from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) showing that the Philippines might be acquiring the COVID vaccine only by the second quarter of 2022 to 2023. Both reveal how poorly the Philippines is handling the pandemic. But, just how different really are the COVID-19 responses of Taiwan and the Philippines?

According to Forbes, President Tsai Ing-wen implemented a rigorous contact-tracing program that only seven people died in Taiwan due to COVID-19. The contact tracing started as early as January, the month when the Philippines is still in denial of the existence of the virus in the archipelago. Taiwan also implemented strict border controls and entry policy in the first quarter of 2020 while the Philippines was, in the same period, still welcoming with open arms foreigners especially those coming from Wuhan and the mainland China.

Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

Taiwan was also serious with its COVID-19 testing while the Philippine government admitted in May that it has no plans to carry out mass testing to detect COVID-19 infections but instead is leaving the matter to the private sector. This is consistent with the pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte who realized only the importance of COVID testing after ten months of lockdown. As Duterte said, “Alam mo ang importante pala sa totoo lang and I realize now it’s the testing — ‘yung swabbing pati ‘yung test.”

Tsai Ing-wen was grateful for the recognition of controlling the spread of COVID in Taiwan but insisted that the success was a team effort. This is in contrast in the Philippines where the national government wants everything decentralized if not compartmentalized. Proof are the presence of a number of czars for Covid testing, vaccine procurement, contact tracing and the like, and the differences in policies and even in the interpretation of the same related to the pandemic. So one may experience a strict implementation of travel pass requirements in one city, for instance, and non-observance of the same in another. Add to these is the seemingly detached leader who relies only on his officials and reporting only to the people once a week.

On another note, while governments of other countries including Taiwan are scrambling for vaccines, the Philippine government is not only struggling to cough up with money but is already being embroiled in scandals for the procurement even at this early. Note that the struggle to produce money is not based on the issue on the lack of it but because of prioritization.

For 2021, the budget for the Department of Health where the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines is lodged only ranks third with P287.5 billion as against the P694.8 billion of the Department of Public Works and Highways and the P708.2 billion of the Department of Education. Worse, programmed allocation is only P2.5 billion with an additional unprogrammed appropriation of P70 billion based on the bicameral version.

Unprogrammed appropriations are those which provide standby authority to incur additional agency obligations for priority programs or projects when revenue collection exceed targets, and when additional grants or foreign funds are generated. In simple terms, they only become available when the government exceeds revenue collection targets or there are new funds generated.

Even without the final approved budget, the EIU forecasted that the Philippines will be among those that will access last the COVID-19 vaccines — possibly between the second quarter of 2022 to 2023. Cuba, a country isolated because of economic blockades and with sour relations with the United States, might even access the vaccines earlier than the Philippines.

In the ASEAN region, Indonesia has already started vaccination while Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei are set to start next year. Laos is currently undergoing vaccination trials while the Philippines is still in discussing how to do about it — that is, whether or not the President issue an executive order to fast track the issuance of the permit for the trial or not. Allegedly, the Philippine bureaucratic policies is among the issues raised by the withdrawal of AstraZeneca, the United Kingdom-based drug firm, to conduct COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials in the country. AstraZeneca is the second to withdraw holding clinical trials. The first was the state-owned Chinese firm Sinopharm which withdrew in October its plans for vaccine testing in the Philippines.

The Philippines, however, is posturing to procure the vaccine and have mass vaccination implemented by mid-2021. But, given the recent turn of events, there is a greater likelihood that the forecast of the EIU will happen. If this happens, then the Filipinos will have to wait until the vaccine becomes available.

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