‘Philippine needs open access to COVID-19 vaccine’

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MANILA, Philippines — Developing countries like the Philippines need open access to the vaccine against COVID-19, President Duterte told the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Duterte also supported the UN’s call for global solidarity against COVID during his first participation in the UN General Assembly through virtual video presentations by world leaders.

Addressing the assembly, Duterte reiterated the need to ensure universal access for all once the vaccine is developed.

“When the world finds that vaccine, access to it must not be denied nor withheld. It should be made available to all, rich and poor nations alike, as a matter of policy,” he said. “COVID-19 knows no border. It knows no nationality. It knows no race. It knows no gender. It knows no age. It knows no creed.”

The Philippines values the role that the United Nations plays in its fight against the pandemic, Duterte added.

“As a middle-income country whose economic advances have been derailed by the pandemic, we welcome the launch of the UN COVID Response and Recovery Fund,” he said.

The United Nations COVID-19 response fund is a UN inter-agency mechanism established by the Secretary General to help support low- and middle-income program countries to respond to the pandemic and its impacts. It was established in April this year.

Duterte joined the first batch of 12 leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, who delivered via pre-recorded video their speeches on various issues ranging from the COVID-19 response to security and the global economy.

Along with other world leaders, Duterte’s pre-recorded speech was aired during the historic virtual general assembly of the UN in its 75th session with the working theme: “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.”

At the start of the high-level debates, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for global solidarity to overcome COVID-19 and called for a ceasefire during the pandemic by the end of the year.

Duterte apparently shared Guterres’ sentiment, which would give the Philippines a fighting chance to get access to the vaccines, treatment and other resources.

“To defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges, we must work with seamless unity, which demands complete mutual trust and the conviction that we will win or lose together,” he said. “We cannot bring back the dead but we can spare the living; and we can build back better, healthier and more prosperous and just societies.”

“To this end, we rededicate ourselves to multilateralism. The UN remains humanity’s essential organization. But it is only as effective as we make it,” he said.

In the middle of the pandemic here, Duterte has vowed before the Filipino nation that he will do everything to get the vaccines for the country, hoping these can be developed and pass clinical trials by December.

He also acknowledged that the country has been affected by the pandemic and it might be hard to get enough resources to procure the vaccine. He said he would not think twice about borrowing money or selling government property to be able to buy the vaccines.

Apart from striking cooperation with the United States, China and Russia for access to the vaccine, the Philippine government also joined the GAVI-COVID-19 Global Access Facility backed by the World Health Organization.

At least P1.5 billion has been set aside by the government for the country’s participation in the COVAX Facility.

COVID-19 has infected more than 31.5 million people round the world, with 21.6 million having recovered and 967,000 deaths since the pandemic started early this year.

Foreign financing secured by the Philippine government to support its pandemic response has reached nearly $10 billion by mid-September, with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III reporting that the foreign loans and grants would beef up its war chest against the pandemic.

“These borrowings will help cover our revenue shortfall resulting from the slowdown of economic activity due to the lockdowns,” he said, noting half of the amount came from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

The Philippine government expects to hire 50,000 contact tracers for deployment by Oct. 1, according to Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, who hopes this will help in the COVID-19 response efforts. The health department has said while the situation continues to improve, this doesn’t mean the country was out of the woods.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire noted they “really see improvements but not enough” to recommend the easing of community quarantine. She said the case doubling time as well as the mortality doubling time lengthened to 11.02 days and 15.79 days, respectively.

Universal access

In his speech, the President said “universal access to anti-COVID-19 technologies and products is pivotal in the global pandemic recovery,” while the world races to find a safe and effective vaccine.

Duterte also made clear the Philippines’ commitment in joining its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Non-Aligned Movement “in raising our collective voice: the COVID-19 vaccine must be considered a global public good.”

The President sympathized with thousands of families who lost their loved ones due to the virus, and paid tribute to health frontline workers who risk their lives every day to treat patients here and abroad.

Duterte said the WHO should enforce a global health agenda with enough resources and policy to make sure that no country is left behind. “We need a WHO that is quick to coordinate and quicker to respond. The Philippines will do its part in the pooling of global resources. Our health workers are among the best,” he said.

He had earlier lamented how more affluent countries are likely to get first crack at the vaccines once they are developed. He also decried demands by some manufacturing firms and Western countries to seek advance payment for vaccines still a work in progress.

“While each nation has its own strategy in fighting the pandemic, what the world needs are coordinated international plans and efforts to pursue a common purpose,” the President said.

Duterte batted for reforms at the UN, saying it needs to be bold to be able to make significant changes as it marks its 75th anniversary.

“We need to act on long-standing recommendations to improve the Security Council’s composition and working methods; to strengthen the role of the General Assembly and to streamline the processes and the operations of the UN,” he said.

The UN General Assembly is the main deliberative organ of the UN where all the 193 member-states are represented.

His Excellency Volkan Bozkir, president of the 75th UNGA, is presiding over the high-level debate that will run until Sept. 29. This year’s session is being held virtually for the first time in UN history due to restrictions posed by the pandemic. – Christina Mendez, Mary Grace Padin, Romina Cabrera, Sheila Crisostomo, Paolo Romero