The surge in the COVID-19 cases in the country comes with an increase in the morbidity and mortality rate. To curb the devastating effects of the virus, one concrete solution is to vaccinate the populace against the SARS CoV-2 virus. The limited supply of the vaccines, however, led the National Government to come up with a Deployment and Vaccination Plan for COVID-19 Vaccines, listing the priority population groups who can first benefit from the vaccine rollout.
In the Department of Health (DoH) Memorandum No. 2021-0099, or the Interim Omnibus Guidelines for the Implementation of the National Vaccine Deployment Plan for COVID-19 dated Feb. 23, the priority population groups are enumerated, as follows:
1. Frontline workers in health facilities both national and local, private and public, health professionals and non-professionals like students in health and allied professions courses with clinical responsibilities, nursing aides, janitors, barangay health workers, etc.
2. Senior citizens aged 60 years old and above
3. Adults with comorbidities not otherwise included in the preceding categories
4. Frontline personnel in essential sectors both in public and private sectors, including uniformed personnel, and those in working sectors identified by the IATF that are directly client facing and cannot dutifully meet minimum public health standards
5. Poor population based on the National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction (NHTS-PR) not otherwise included in the preceding categories
Despite the straightforward list, recent reports reveal that there are non-priority individuals who are getting inoculated. And they seem to get away with it. Once again, societal inequality and privilege is underscored even during this time of pandemic.
The mayors who have been recently inoculated offered the excuse that they did it to boost vaccine confidence among their constituents. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte himself said in a televised address to the nation on March 24 that the mayors’ excuse is a “gray area” that “would require a certain amount of legal study. This, despite the clear statement of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on March 4 that the vaccination of officials ahead of the health workers are “breaches.”
Even civilians, like actor Mark Anthony Fernandez, received the shot earlier than priority health workers. Reports have also been received of police officers jumping the queue.
Aside from denying the healthcare workers the priority of being vaccinated, vax line jumpers also endanger the country. President Duterte said that the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that if these non-priority officials continue to jump the line, the country might lose access to the vaccine donations from the COVAX Facility.
Given the impact of skipping the vax line, violators should not be allowed to go unpunished. But to date, no one has actually been penalized for violating the government’s priority list. These reported cases are still being referred to the Department of Interior and Local Government for investigation and with no correlative action just yet. President Duterte himself also said that they may face charges.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra remarked that there is a “possible administrative liability if they are government officials who are not in the priority list,” while Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Epimaco Densing earlier said that public officials may be suspended for this. He, however, also said that as of this time, he does not see any potential liability on the part of civilians who jump the line. The liability, he said, may be upon those who let them skip the line.
It is basic tenet in criminal law that there is no crime when there is no law punishing it. Even Mr. Roque said that there is a need to pass a national quarantine law to provide sanctions for those who do not abide by the vaccination deployment plan.
As of late, Deputy Majority Leader and Quezon City Rep. Precious Hipolito Castelo proposed that vaccine line jumping and mishandling should be criminalized, stressing that she would file a bill to this effect. Said bill, she said, would amend Republic Act 11525, or the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021, which only penalizes the falsification of a vaccine card.
Clearly, there is an exigency to pass a law to curtail the deplorable act of skipping the vaccine line, cutting in front of frontline workers, despite not being included in the government’s priority list. The government should be as serious in punishing these violators as it is in ensuring that those in the priority list will be vaccinated first. Who knows, there may be more violators than what meets the eye of the media.
This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.
Gerime Mae A. Basalo is an Associate of the Cebu Branch of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW).