Targeting the weak

By Ayra Monette Tamaray

While people experience poverty, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) proposes withholding some benefits on unvaccinated individuals of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), raising the issue of human rights and discrimination.

On Nov. 8, DILG spokesperson Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, said in an interview with GMA News that non-vaccinated 4Ps individuals are not removed from the list of beneficiaries but only suspended from a portion of the benefit until the individuals get vaccinated.

“The intention behind this proposal is sincere and clear: to boost the inoculation drive in order to rise above the COVID-19 nightmare and reach population protection as soon as possible,” the DILG Secretary Eduardo Año stated in a news release.

Several lawmakers, such as Senator Franklin Drilon and Senator Risa Hontiveros, have opposed the DILG’s proposal as they believe it is derogatory for the 4Ps beneficiaries.

Based on the DSWD’s website, the 4Ps is a program that provides cash grants to “eligible poor households subject to their compliance with education and health conditionalities.” The conditionalities are:

4Ps beneficiaries’ school-aged children must enroll in school and attend at least 85% of the time.

Mothers must avail pre-and post-natal care.

Children five and below must receive regular and preventive check-ups.

Children 6-14 years old must avail of deworming pills every five months.

Parents or guardians must attend the monthly conduct of Family Development Session (FDS).

Vaccinated or not, 4Ps beneficiaries are entitled to their benefits if they meet the above conditions. It will take an amendment of RA 11310, which institutionalized the 4Ps, to add vaccination as one of the conditionalities. However, the country does not need an amendment since the DILG’s proposal only undermines the already marginalized sector.

Targeting the vulnerable sector of 4Ps and limiting the benefits for the unvaccinated is like rubbing salt to the wounds of the beneficiaries. These chosen individuals heavily rely on the assistance of the government for their living, and depriving them of their rightfully entitled benefits would only add up to their burden.

Supreme Court Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez said in a Rappler interview that people could find basis in the right to privacy in opposing mandatory vaccination. In the case of Disini vs. Secretary of DOJ, the Supreme Court cited the US case of Whalen vs. Roe stating that there are two types of privacy: decisional and informational.

The United States Supreme Court said, “decisional privacy involves the right to independence in making certain important decisions, while informational privacy refers to the interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters.”

The DILG’s proposal of mandatory vaccination disregards decisional privacy. The agency infringes the right to privacy as they interfere with a person’s right to decide for himself as an autonomous individual.

Furthermore, Section 11, Article II of the 1987 Constitution ensures that the “State values the dignity of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights.” With the mandatory vaccination in place, respect for human rights is infringed. It will pressure people to unwillingly conform to a particular action to attain the benefits to which they are eligible in the first place.

Instead of resorting to mandatory vaccination, the government should learn that vaccine hesitancy may stem from society’s perceived image of the government. The Dengvaxia case in 2016 perhaps intensified the doubts of the Filipinos on vaccines.

The dengue vaccine became a political controversy as it was allegedly linked with the deaths of several children, even if scientific assessments proved otherwise. The vaccine strategy, after all, was coherent with the WHO recommendation.

A study by Mendoza et al., (2021),  led by political scholars and public health experts, titled “Public trust and the COVID‐19 vaccination campaign: lessons from the Philippines as it emerges from the Dengvaxia controversy,” stated that the country needs “accountability, transparency, and proper communication from the most trusted sources of the population,” to rise from the consequences of the Dengvaxia case and lessen the hesitancy in the COVID-19 vaccine.

Furthermore, a recent Social Weather Station (SWS) survey showed that “while 6 out of 10 adult Filipinos said they were willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a sizable portion of the population remains reluctant or still unwilling to get a shot.” The results also showed that “overall unwillingness to get vaccinated was highest among non-elementary graduates, remaining at one-third of those respondents.” Meaning that education regarding the vaccine is a crucial factor in increasing the inoculation drive in the country.

In these circumstances, the answer does not lie in pressuring people to be inoculated with the vaccine. The government must consider implementing a strengthened vaccine campaign among the community. Furthermore, incentives, rather than punishments, are also plausible ways to persuade people to get vaccinated.

Lawmakers must ensure that the DILG’s proposal is not passed into law as one cannot simply jeopardize the lives of the 4Ps beneficiaries in the hopes of doing heroic acts in the time of the pandemic.

Ayra Monette Tamaray is a 2nd year BA Communication student of the University of the Philippines Baguio.