Haywire messaging

Heartbreaking scenes of people swarming vaccination sites in the cities of Manila, Las Piñas, and Antipolo in the wee hours of Aug. 5 gave end-of-the-world feels on the eve of the ECQ lockdown for Metro Manila.

The Manila information office said police gave these estimates of crowds that trooped to four vaccination sites at around 2 a.m. on Thursday: SM San Lazaro, 7,000 to 10,000; SM Manila, 5,000; Lucky Chinatown, 3,000; Robinsons Manila. 4,000. These crowds were “unusually high,” said the city information office, as the regular number of people queuing for vaccination ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 only.

In Las Piñas, kilometers-long lines of people were reported as early as Wednesday. An ABS-CBN video showed people running toward SM Southmall at 2 a.m., and another video showed crowds rushing to the Las Piñas Doctors Hospital as it opened for vaccination at 7 a.m. Long lines of people were also seen outside a mall in Antipolo City in Rizal on Thursday morning.

Vaccine hesitancy? These multitudes clearly belied the government’s regular complaint about the refusal of ordinary citizens to get jabbed with COVID-19 vaccines.

But why the desperation? According to the Manila Public Information Office, “The investigators found out that people rushed (to get vaccines) because they were afraid about news that they will not be allowed to get out of their homes if they were not vaccinated. They said they will be arrested. And it’s the last day before the ECQ.’’

Las Piñas City spokesperson Paul San Miguel said they heard another reason: People flocked to the vaccination sites despite the curfew because they believed talk about a “No vaccine, no ayuda’’ (cash aid) guideline from the government.

Now, where could that false news have come from? Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque can look for scapegoats elsewhere, but clearly some of the frightening words that stirred fear and anxiety in the public came from his principal, President Duterte.

In his public address on July 28, Mr. Duterte ordered barangay officials to bar unvaccinated people from going out of their homes: “These people who do not want to get vaccinated, I’m telling you, do not go out of your houses. Because if you do, I will tell the police to take you home. You will be escorted back to your house because you are a walking spreader.”

Last month, the President also said those who refused to get vaccinated would be sent to jail — despite the absence of any law as basis for arresting people who refuse to get vaccinated or have been unable to get the jab because of the lack of vaccine supply.

As another round of ECQ descended on the populace, those pronouncements underpinned the collective fear that drove people desperate for both the vaccine and cash aid to rush to vaccination sites. Kathlyn Rose Villanueva, 27. one of those who lined up, was quoted in this paper’s report as saying: “To tell you honestly, we wanted to get the vaccine because President Duterte had said that the unvaccinated would not be allowed to go out. Our mayor also said, ‘no vaccine, no quarantine pass.’”

The thought of not getting the measly cash aid would send at least 19,000 people from Rizal, Laguna, Bulacan, and Cavite scampering on Thursday to the city of Manila, which allows non-residents to get vaccinated as long as they preregistered. In Las Piñas, people ignored the pleas of officials on Wednesday night for them to go home because of the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew.

The crowding was a perfect recipe for the transmission of the virus, as social distancing and other health protocols were abandoned. Overwhelmed officials in Manila had to cancel the vaccination on Thursday, after the people had waited in line for at least 12 hours.

Such is the miserable life for the vaccine-ready, aid-hungry masses who are left to fend for themselves and could not even be served with correct information, much less adequate service and support by the government in this devastating pandemic.

Compounding their distress, rules for the ECQ have been arbitrary as usual. The police banned the sending and fetching of workers, but withdrew the order overnight after public clamor. And it was only on Thursday evening that Malacañang announced that Laguna, Iloilo City, and Cagayan de Oro would also be placed under ECQ the following morning, leaving residents in those areas no time for preparation.

Is there any doubt that the scenes of chaos and confusion were driven by the dire combination of presidential threats and the failure of the administration to provide correct and timely information? The haywire messaging is leading to grave consequences. Roque’s response, however, typifies the Palace’s bent to blame the public: “I think there are really people spreading fake news. There are people who are up to no good in their lives. I don’t know why they don’t get COVID.” (Roque, by the way, had gotten COVID-19—twice.)

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