By Jun Alonto Datu-Ramos, MD, MHA
National Commission on Muslim Filipinos-
Bureau of External Relations
As a way to address the country’s need to vaccinate majority of the population, the Department of Health launched the National Vaccination Days from November 28 to December 2, 2021, which was in partnership with multiple private and public sector organizations. The NCMF-Bureau of External Relations was among those who attended the multiple meetings done in preparation for the nationwide activity, alongside other organizations like the Philippine Medical Association, DILG, Globe, among others.
In one of the meetings, specifically one presided by Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., a table was presented showing the vaccination rate of all regions from Luzon to Mindanao. It showed that those with the lowest vaccination rates were regions 9, 5, 12, and BARMM. The target vaccination rate for herd immunity was originally at 70%, but was increased to 80-90% around September 2021 due to the surge caused by the Delta variant. This means that 8-9 out of 10 Filipinos should be vaccinated by the end of the first quarter of 2022, as set by the national government. The DOH and IATF knew that the numbers were showing a slowdown of the vaccination rates, and that immediate measures had to be undertaken, especially for the regions that were not hitting the target rates.
Let’s compare the numbers of NCR and BARMM.
The estimated population of the NCR based on the Commission on Population and Development website is 13,695,700, and the DOH numbers show that the total COVID-19 jabs given is 18, 520,154. That is a vaccination rate of 135%. The estimated population of BARMM as of December 2021 is 4,635,754. At present, the DOH counters show that the total vaccinated population of BARMM is at 1,009,990, setting the estimated vaccination rate at 21.78%. This is an improvement from the 11-17% shown by Secretary Galvez prior to the week-long vaccination drive, but the question is: ARE THE NUMBERS HIGH ENOUGH?
In contrast to the NCR which ranks highest in the DOH COVID-19 vaccination dashboard, BARMM is still at the lowest level in the listing, along with regions 12, 9, MIMAROPA, CARAGA, and CAR. The current vaccination rates of these regions are way below the 80-90% target for herd immunity.
One concern we raised with Secretary Galvez was the need to determine WHY these regions have not achieved the targets, and address those reasons directly. At present, the Philippines is logging in almost a million jabs per day, but only 30,613 are from BARMM, and 18,139 from CAR. The reluctance of the residents to get their vaccines might be one major reason why these regions are unable to catch up, aside from lack of healthcare workers and possibly poor accessibility to certain areas, and it will help if the DOH knew for certain what is stopping the people from getting immunized.
Unfortunately, a majority of Muslim Filipinos are still against being vaccinated, and are not hesitant to spread their anti-vaccination stance on social media. Contributing to the spread of misinformation about the usefulness and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines to prevent severe disease and death is the twisted interpretation of religious doctrines and cultural beliefs. There are people who spread fake news on socmed about supposed haram contents of the COVID-19 vaccines, its alleged long-term effects on people’s health, and even the accusation that immunization is against God’s will. It is not just the COVID-19 vaccines. The DOH historically had experienced difficulty in promoting vaccine use for diseases such as polio, measles, diptheria in Muslim communities, well-established and vastly-studied vaccines, but that is another story to tell.
We should be concerned about the DOH’s numbers and the conversations on social media. As long as we fail to address the ignorance of the people, and allow misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines to spread, we will not be able to reach the target rates by March 2022. Maybe, the answer is not with increasing the number of vaccination sites and healthcare workers. Rather, it is identifying how to penetrate the communities by speaking the language they would understand. Tapping the community elders and traditional leaders to become trained public health partners might have better results than having Globe or Smart release health advisory text blasts to all their subscribers. These leaders know how to address the communities, and they have earned the respect of each member under their leadership in conformance to cultural traditions.
Know your audience. Otherwise, they might never listen, and we will never learn.