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More than two years into our battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has become clear: we could not have done as well as we did without the teamwork between the public and the private sector.
For a country like the Philippines, which lacks the resources to go toe-to-toe in the pandemic response of wealthy countries like the US or Singapore, the worldwide spread of a highly contagious virus sounded like a death knell, an impossible war that it had very little chance of winning.
And yet here we are, at low risk levels, with better-than-expected first quarter GDP numbers and even better prospects for recovery by the end of the year, facing a fresh start with all the excitement and optimism that a new administration always brings.
When I first realized the enormity of the task that lay before us in those early months of 2020, I knew this was a job that needed the government and the private sector to pull together.
You cannot fight an enemy you cannot see. That was why at the outset, the emphasis was on testing. It was an alternative to wide-net lockdowns, which invariably paralyzed transport and supply chains and would be disastrous to MSMEs. Plus, we were faced with the dilemma of managing a situation where people were confined to their homes and essential workers risked infection, but still had to perform on-site work.
Back then, testing kits were hard to come by, so the solution we arrived at was to use Antigen Rapid Kits in the interim. This formed the beginnings of Project ARK (an acronym for Antigen Rapid Kits), which made testing faster and more available, and focused our efforts on finding testing solutions.
To increase the daily testing RT-PCR capacity from 1,500 to 100,000 a day, we next looked at pooled RT-PCR testing. This was also a more affordable alternative as pooled testing saved time and maximized equipment and manpower.
Because pooled testing made more sense cost-wise, the private sector was able to donate the necessary equipment and provide for training and certification for 110 strategically located molecular laboratories across the country.
By late 2020, the private sector-funded study on pooled testing helped pave the way for its use by the government. Pooled PCR tests cost 72 percent less than individual PCR tests. This formed the basis of our recommendation that pooled testing be a reimbursable procedure under PhilHealth.
From 2021 to 2022, Go Negosyo funded a second pooled PCR testing study using saliva specimen, making tests even more cost-effective as there would be no need for swabbers and viral transport media. This remains a viable mass testing innovation today, and made testing more accessible for use in schools, tourist spots, and among vulnerable sectors.
By the fourth quarter of 2020, vaccines became available for emergency use. The Philippines, however, was nowhere near the front of the queue. The largest, wealthiest countries in the world wanted their population vaccinated so they could return to normal as soon as possible. This further stifled the free flow of supply to poorer countries.
Several pharmaceutical companies offered to help the Philippine government secure vaccines, and the World Health Organization was doing what it could to make sure vaccines were available even to poor countries. Philippine procurement laws, however, were prohibiting the purchase of vaccines without the proper clearance.
I was looped in to the vaccine procurement task as I, perhaps, had by then plenty of experience with public-private sector cooperation in pandemic response. What we came up with was A Dose of Hope (ADOH), a world’s-first tripartite agreement between the private sector, the government and the pharmaceutical companies. Under ADOH, the private sector would buy the vaccines from the pharma companies, and donate these to the government: with half being allocated for workers and persons recommended by the donors, and the other half to be used at government’s discretion.
The design of ADOH spread the risk of vaccine procurement and made it manageable for all parties. It was also a way to overcome regulatory roadblocks to address a very real public health emergency. More importantly, it got the country its supply of vaccines.
By November 2020, we had signed the agreement among the three parties, and by January the next year, 14.4 million vaccines were secured. The entire shipment of 17 million doses arrived by December 2021.
But the work didn’t stop there. Private sector shared its expertise on supply chain management; with some vaccines, it was the cold chain storage and logistics. Even vaccination queuing learned a thing or two from the private sector in the form of best practices for online appointment systems. Government, meanwhile, knew how to mobilize people, using the long-established barangay networks and the influence of local community leaders.
As vaccine supply started to flow, Go Negosyo and ADOH partners coordinated with 606 LGUs for the private sector shared vaccination sites nationwide to help MSMEs that did not have the means to do so. These were set up in accessible locations, and ultimately helped vaccinate thousands of individuals.
All throughout the pandemic, the private sector’s role was always within the framework of saving both lives and livelihoods. There were instances, though, when pandemic response had to be calibrated to preserve livelihoods.
I believed, for example, that granular lockdowns, as opposed to total lockdowns, made better sense at balancing the economy and keeping infections at bay. In March 2020, I convened the private sector to meet with the IATF, with the aim of persuading the government to adopt granular lockdowns. Granular lockdowns were later adopted as a strategy as we came to better understand how the virus spread.
In August 2021, I led the private sector and convinced them to bite the bullet and, following the advice of data experts, support a total lockdown in the NCR to stop the spread of the deadly Delta variant. This was a strategic move as it was projected to head off infections so people could start going out by the fourth quarter when economic activity would normally be at its peak. Thankfully, we were proven right and infections stayed manageable.
In the private sector, we learn to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. We used the delay in vaccine delivery in 2020 – no doubt caused by overwhelming global demand – to negotiate with the government and move up economic frontliners to a higher priority group. It also bought us time to bargain for an earlier release of the private sector share of the vaccines since government-to-government donations were already pouring in.
Our contribution in pooled testing and vaccine procurement was proof of what the private sector can contribute to the government’s pandemic response. It gives me hope about what other great things we can achieve when the government and private sector work together.