Last Saturday, the President flew back in, reportedly to ready the nation against a more infectious strain of the coronavirus that had been identified in the United Kingdom.
As the meeting droned on, however, it became evident that the President was in fact reeling from a very public disagreement between two members of his Cabinet. He had to address a boiling issue.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. recently criticized another member of the Cabinet for “dropping the ball” during the government’s negotiations with American pharmaceutical Pfizer for supplying the Philippines with its vaccine.
Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez has revealed that Locsin was referring to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson divulged details regarding Duque’s failure to submit a crucial document that would have enabled the Philippines to procure, by January 2021, 10 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, said to be more than 95 percent effective.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque was constrained to admit that government will instead be buying vaccines from Chinese firm Sinovac.
Senate Minority leader Franklin Drilon has warned government against procuring from Sinovac, citing their vaccines’ alleged 50 percent efficacy rate. This pales in comparison with Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra Zeneca.
“Safety and efficacy must be first and foremost. We should not sacrifice safety and efficacy. Otherwise, we run the risk of people refusing a COVID-19 vaccine out of fear,” said Drilon in a statement issued on Christmas Day.
These complications in the procurement process are strange considering that no less than the President himself had in many instances repeated government’s complete obeisance to the vaccines as the antidote to the virus. It is the anchor by which to rebuild a badly damaged economy.
People understand the unparalleled, emergency situation that we are in. Quick procurement action is necessary, shortcuts excusable. Access to vaccines is a contest among nations, especially poor ones like the Philippines. The country is in a tight race to save lives and livelihoods.
“Dropping the ball” at this stage would be an absolute disaster.
But details revealed by Duque himself show that it took government five long months to sign a confidentiality data agreement required in negotiations with Pfizer. This agreement would enable experts to look at Pfizer’s vaccine development data.
Pfizer’s preference was for the Office of the President to sign the CDA. A month would pass before the executive secretary was able to designate the Department of Health as signatory. But the DOH hedged, pointing out that it is the Department of Science and Technology that should take the lead in the assessment of the Pfizer vaccine.
In the end, after much back-and-forth, it was Duque himself who signed the CDA in behalf of government. The delay, however, placed the Philippines several steps back in the queue for an efficacious vaccine.
The government that had loudly postured as an anti-red-tape reformist was caught in a stupendous bureaucratic bind at a time when it truly mattered.
Consequently, amid a repeat of calls for Duque’s sacking, the President said that he will proceed with the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) if the United States government fails to produce at least 20 million vaccines for the Philippines.
Not only does this declaration ignore the reality that Pfizer, etc., are private corporations, it evades the question of who truly dropped the ball in the procurement negotiations.
In this case, the initial designation by the executive secretary should have settled the question of the proper signatory. He occupies a position of primacy among the President’s alter egos. Acting in behalf of the President, the executive secretary can override or reverse decisions of other department heads.
This proceeds from the Constitution which provides that the President has control over all the executive departments. Members of the Cabinet act for and in behalf of the President. Their actions are presumed to be those of the President himself, unless he disapproves or rejects them.
We are not hearing a syllable of reproof./WDJ