BRP Opinion

If I were the next president…

Ben R.  Punongbayan
By:
Ben R. Punongbayan
Contents

AS president, I will devote my whole six-year term to providing a much more effective, efficient, decisive and widely focused national leadership with the primary objective of transforming the Filipino nation into a fair, just, equitable and economically well-developed society and, thus, take a big leap forward from what it is today.

The centerpiece and overarching program of that transformation is the substantial reduction, if not near eradication, of widespread poverty and hunger.

Containing Covid

There are urgent issues that need to be properly focused at and dealt with right at the outset of my administration. One of these is containing the destructive Covid-19 contagion.

As everyone agrees, it is extremely important that the country contains the raging Covid-19 pandemic as quickly as possible to enable the country to start recovering from the economic devastation resulting from the measures applied to control the pandemic.

As it is, the country already suffered an economic decline of 9.5 percent in the whole of 2020. The economy continued to decline by 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2021. Those declines have deeply wounded the economy and led to widespread suffering among our people.

We need to arrest this decline, reverse it, and put the economy on track for a much-needed recovery and onto a much higher trajectory of economic growth. The only way to do all these is to try to achieve herd immunity as early as resolute government action can make it happen.

There are two challenging tasks that need to be effectively dealt with to achieve quick herd immunity - accelerating the rate of vaccination and removing people's hesitancy to vaccination.

Currently, based on official pronouncements, the goal is to vaccinate 58 million to 70 million Filipinos to achieve herd immunity. To be safe, our administration will use the high end of that range. Such vaccination level will also approximate the apparent world standard of 70 percent of population for achieving herd immunity. The target of vaccinating 70 million Filipinos will need the equivalent of 140 million vaccine doses (ignoring for this purpose the use of single vaccines).

Official information indicates that there are about four million doses that have already been injected, leaving a balance of 136 million doses. As officially reported, the present daily vaccination rate is 120,000 doses. Even when this daily rate is doubled, herd immunity can only be achieved by the end of 2022. Given the vagaries attendant to such a huge undertaking, particularly those relating to the ready availability of vaccine supply and the planning involved in moving the vaccines, it is almost certain that when recognizing these considerations herd immunity may only be achieved well beyond 2022.

Doable

Because of the foregoing evaluation, our administration will endeavor to achieve herd immunity by or earlier than June 30, 2023. That may be difficult to accomplish, but I consider it doable. We will try to learn from the current experience and inject management effectiveness, with adequate medical professional support, in the whole endeavor.

Hesitancy to vaccination appears to be widespread, especially in the rural areas. It is therefore a big obstacle. In dealing with this huge problem, it may be more effective to decentralize to the provinces and cities the activities to attract and persuade hesitant citizens to be vaccinated. The local government units (LGUs) shall be required to do the groundwork to achieve a 70-percent vaccination rate in their respective geographical areas. For this purpose, they will be provided by the national government with the necessary monitoring tools. At the national level, we will organize a comprehensive campaign using traditional and social media.

We will regularly monitor and be earnestly watchful of the achievement rate at the national level and do whatever is necessary to fix any lag that occurs to ensure the achievement of the herd immunity target date, including helping to the extent required any LGUs that may need assistance.

The pandemic has exposed two significant institutional weaknesses in providing health care generally and combating particularly a scourge like Covid-19.

Fixing PhilHealth

One relates to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) specifically on two issues - incidence of corruption in this government agency and its much-delayed payment of claims for reimbursements by the hospitals. Corruption is widespread and ingrained in the government system. As a subject, it may best be covered in a separate commentary.

As to PhilHealth itself, to contain corruption in this agency, we will seriously consider the privatization of most of its functions. The part that may lend well to privatization is the receiving and processing of benefit claims. These are the activities where opportunities for corruption can easily be exploited by unscrupulous persons. Privatizing these activities will remove them from the reach of corruption. Moreover, acquisition of operating assets for these activities will also be out of government control and, thus, removing another opportunity for corruption.

The receipt of health are contributions from employers and employees and any additional funding from the government, and actual payment of claims that were already evaluated by the private entity will remain with PhilHealth.

As to the prolonged delays in payment of benefit claims, the privatization described above will certainly lead to greater efficiency in the processing of benefit claims and therefore may help reduce the delays in payment to the hospitals. Nevertheless, we will review and study the delays as these may also be due to insufficient funding. If so, we will have to assess the sufficiency of PhilHealth members' contributions and the government's capacity to provide the funds to fill the gap in funding the entire universal healthcare system.

Virus infection will not end with Covid-19. And for a country of more than 100 million people, the Philippines must acquire at least the basic and intermediate capabilities to develop vaccines to enable the country to avoid entire dependency on foreign supply which necessarily delays the country's containment response to any future contagion, whether occurring in our country only or all over the world.

For this purpose, we will thoroughly review and evaluate the structure, mission, and funding of both the Infectious Diseases Office and Research Institute for Tropical Diseases of the Department of Health. When such basic and intermediate capabilities, however defined, have been established, the necessary link with one or more local or international vaccine developers and manufacturers will be pursued to acquire a quick vaccination response to any future virus contagion.

Covid-19 has wreaked and will continue to create havoc on the economy and inflict severe suffering on our people. We will endeavor to limit and stop such destructive consequences of the present pandemic. Moreover, we will strengthen and install the institutions and processes that may minimize damages arising from any future similar catastrophes.

 

As published in The Manila Times, dated 12 June 2021

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