MANILA, Philippines – House Deputy Speaker and Valenzuela City Rep. Weslie Gatchalian urged the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health authorities to refrain from issuing “premature assumptions” against legitimate industries including tobacco, alcohol and infant formula manufacturers who are just trying to protect their workforce and families from COVID-19 by procuring vaccines.
“My appeal to public health authorities like WHO whose expertise we greatly value in advising us policymakers and regulatory officials is to set aside certain assumptions they have about certain companies and help us as a nation make sure that no one is left behind,” Gatchalian said in a statement.
Gatchalian was reacting to the statement of WHO representative in the Philippines Rabindra Abeyasinghe who said the Department Health’s (DOH) proposed exclusion from the vaccine rollout of the said firms was due to the concern that COVID-19 vaccines they would be procuring could be used to promote their products.
While the controversial DOH provision was removed following the outcry of several lawmakers and stakeholders, the Federation of Philippines Industry, one the country’s biggest association of manufacturers and industries, called for the immediate repeal of the rules that were used as basis for the “unlawful” and “discriminatory” DOH proposal.
The WHO was criticized for justifying the original proposal of the DOH which would have prevented companies like San Miguel Corp., the entire Lucio Tan group, Coca-Cola, Puregold, Nestlé, Destileria Limtuaco and all soft drinks and alcoholic beverage producers from procuring vaccines for their employees.
Gatchalian particularly noted the WHO’s “premature” assumption that tobacco and infant formula producers might use COVID-19 vaccines they plan to procure for their employees and dependents to promote their advocacy.
The controversial DOH draft order immediately drew flak from various sectors and personalities, including Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate President Pro-tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senator Imee Marcos, and Representatives, Jericho Nograles, Michael Defensor, Ace Barbers, Bernadette Herrera, Stella Luz Quimbo and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
The DOH, however, defended its actions, citing as basis Executive Order 51 on milk products and Joint
Memorandum Circular (JMC) 2010-01 which prohibits government officials and employees from interacting with the tobacco industry.
It was likewise revealed that the JMC was issued in the same year the DOH and the Civil Service Commission received massive grants from the anti-tobacco NGO Bloomberg Initiative.
FPI Chairman Jesus Arranza urged the government to revisit the basis of those guidelines.
“As these circulars appear to have been often misconstrued, it is high-time for the CSC and the government to revisit and repeal these guidelines to ensure the avoidance of discriminatory and unjust policies emanating from them,” Arranza said.
“In this time of the pandemic, we need all the help we can get,” he added.
Equal access to vaccines
WHO’s Abeyasinghe has publicly defended the DOH’s anti-tobacco provisions in the draft circular, which was eventually ordered scratched by Malacanang following the public outcry.
Gatchalian said such assumptions by the WHO would prevent the Philippines from providing equal access to the COVID-19 vaccines.
“At this time when we have to win against a pandemic that has caused numerous loss of lives and continues to negatively impact the ability of the Filipino people to work, to go to school, to see their families, we need to unite and make sure no one is left behind and discriminated upon,” Gatchalian stressed.
Gatchalian pointed out that Republic Act No. 11525 or the COVID-19 Vaccination Law allows companies to procure vaccines for the use of their employees.
Prioritizing employees, easing gov’t burden
The House leader said that with the scarcity of the vaccines at the moment, these companies are expected to prioritize their employees and dependents.
“Even if they had already incurred huge losses because of the pandemic, they are still prioritizing the welfare of their employees by ordering their own supply of vaccines. And by doing so, they are lessening the burden of the national government by not requesting for allocations,” he said.
“It is in their best interest to protect their employees.”
Gatchalian also criticized the WHO for looking down on the said firms and companies during the pandemic.
He said that while many companies have closed down amid the pandemic, others remained open, so they could continue to help their workforce provide for their families and pay taxes.
Malacañang recently announced that all private companies, including manufacturers of tobacco, will be allowed to procure COVID-19 vaccines through a tripartite agreement with the national government.
“We welcome the removal of the provision in the draft rules that would have restricted some companies from procuring the vaccines. We look forward to the private sector working hand-in-hand with government to achieve herd immunity against this deadly disease,” Gatchalian said.
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