Malilong: Let’s have vaccines first

President Duterte threatened to jail those who refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus during a televised address to the nation last Monday. His justice secretary disagreed with him the following day, saying that there is no law compelling citizens to get vaccinated. His spokesman, again showing his mastery of the art of discombobulation, suggested that the President’s words should not be taken at face value since they were only meant to remind everyone of what the government can do.

Actually there are many things that the national and local governments could have done to compel the recalcitrants to submit to vaccination. Like: Reject the renewal of the passport of the unvaccinated. Do not issue him or her a marriage license. Deny him any financial assistance. Do not allow him to travel abroad. Do not renew his business licenses or permits.

But they couldn’t because it would be against the law. Republic Act 11521, otherwise known as the Covid-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021, says in Section 12: “The vaccine cards shall not be considered as an additional mandatory requirement for educational, employment and other similar government transaction purposes.” Duterte signed the law on Feb. 26, 2021.

Duterte’s labor secretary, who earlier threatened sanctions against employers who compel their workers to get vaccinated, banked on the same law when he issued Labor Advisory No. 03 on March 12, directing the employers to “endeavor to encourage their employees to get vaccinated” but not to discriminate against any employee who refuses or fails to be vaccinated in terms of promotion, training, pay or other benefits. “No vaccine, no work policy shall not be allowed,” Silvestre Bello III’s memorandum said.

If an employee cannot be terminated from employment for refusing to be vaccinated, then with more reason can he not be jailed for the same act. If the President believes that the threat of a jail term is what it will take to persuade someone to receive the vaccine, then he should go back to Congress to amend the law. I’m sure they will oblige him even if some of them may have serious misgivings about such law’s human rights implications.

But should the public be blamed for the government’s failure so far to meet its vaccination target? Isn’t the culprit the perennial shortage of vaccines? It’s true that there are many people who are averse to the idea of vaccination for various reasons, but their hesitancy is something that has yet to be felt in the vaccination centers particularly in Cebu. These centers have been overflowing with people ready to get their doses.

The truth is there are thousands of Cebuanos who have been kept waiting for their turn to be jabbed in the arm for weeks already. Some of them have tried going to the vaccination centers even if they had no appointment, hoping to get their shots but were turned down because there were not enough vaccines to accommodate walk-ins. And how many times have we halted immunization because we ran out of vaccines?

This is the more pressing concern now, rather than the anticipated refusal of a good number to be vaccinated. We need more vaccines. Please.