By Lot Felizco
I was ill in the last two weeks of March with the worst flu-like episode I had ever encountered. Given the state of COVID-19 testing at the time, I did not get myself tested. Actually, I could not. That was around the time the Philippines had tested only a little over 1,000 people due to a lack of testing kits.
Four months later and I am still going through the ups and downs of poor health, still feeling some of the debilitating effects that had prevented me from working for more than two months. Amid the frustration of wanting to recover and not really knowing if I contracted the virus, I can relate with many survivors’ experiences of seemingly getting better, and then not, and facing an onset of other ailments. I’m at 16 weeks and counting, and still recovering.
I pause to reflect on my experiences and the uneven manner in which the government has responded to COVID-19 in the Philippines. The greatest challenge so far is ensuring everyone is able to access tests, treatments, and (hopefully in the near future) vaccines as quickly as possible and free of charge. The Philippines is among the participating nations in the global clinical trial for a vaccine. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases has approved the collaboration with five COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers from China and Taiwan. According to the Department of Science and Technology (DoST), the Philippines’ participation in the global search for a vaccine will ensure a secure portion of the vaccine supply for the country, and more likely be given for free. Other expenses needed to provide vaccination in communities will likely be shouldered by the DoST and the Department of Health. Is this a likely scenario?
Oxfam has launched the People’s Vaccine initiative that urges governments and stakeholders to ensure that when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge. More than 140 world leaders and experts signed the petition that was drafted for the World Health Assembly in May 2020, including the former Presidents of Timor Leste and Ecuador; and the heads of state of Senegal, Ghana, and Pakistan; alongside heads of UN agencies and global health institutes, to cite a few.
In the Philippines, more than 50 organizations, led by Action for Economic Reforms — and including groups of farmers, fisherfolk, urban poor, students, health workers, and various women’s networks — have signed Oxfam’s petition. The National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Protestant National Council of Churches in the Philippines also expressed support for the campaign. Father Edu Gariguez, then NASSA Secretary, said in a statement that NASSA was “calling for free COVID-19 testing, treatment, and this vaccine because we know that when the vaccine is developed, the poor will be left behind again.”
Oxfam’s call is for a global agreement on COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments implemented under the leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO). There must be a mandatory worldwide sharing of all COVID-19 related knowledge, data, and technologies with a pool of COVID-19 licenses freely available to all countries. This means that any nation, regardless of their wealth or location, will be able to produce or buy affordable doses of vaccines, treatments, and tests. To make this a reality, countries should be empowered and enabled to make full use of agreed safeguards and flexibilities in the World Trade Organization Doha Declaration on TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) and Health to promote access to medicines for all.
Second, there must be a global and equitable rapid manufacturing and distribution plan of COVID-19 products and technologies that is fully funded by rich nations. The plan must guarantee transparent “at true cost prices” and supplies per need rather than the ability to pay. To achieve this, there must be urgent action to massively increase manufacturing capacity to produce the vaccines in sufficient quantities, and train and recruit millions of health workers to distribute them. It is time to revisit priorities — are governments spending more on its military or on public health?
Finally, there must be an absolute guarantee that COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests are provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere, with priority given to frontline workers, vulnerable people, and poor countries with the least capacity to save lives. Women living in poverty are hit the hardest whenever there is a crisis. Thus, a rights-based and inclusive global guarantee, implemented via transparent democratic governance principles set by the WHO, means no one can be left behind. Independent expertise and civil society partners will also be essential to lock-in accountability for this agreement.
These are all consistent with a rights-based approach to health, which requires that policies and programs, and their implementation, must prioritize the needs of those furthest behind first towards more equity.
Now more than ever, this approach should be paramount. There is no going back to the way we were. No one is safe until we are all safe.
Lot Felizco is a Fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph) and the Country Director for Oxfam Pilipinas. Oxfam is an international confederation of 20 humanitarian and development organizations working together with partners and local communities in more than 90 countries.