MANILA — Preliminary findings confirm that most cases related to the conduct of anti-drug operations in the Government’s war against drugs failed to follow standard protocol. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra informs the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) how that standard protocol was not followed in many anti-narcotics operations where there had been deaths.
“Our initial and preliminary findings confirm that in many of these cases, law enforcement agents asserted that the subject of the anti-drug operations resisted arrest or attempted to draw a weapon and fight back. Yet no full examination of the weapon recovered was conducted, no verification of its ownership undertaken and no request for ballistic examination or paraffin test was pursued until its completion,” Guevarra said before the 46th Human Rights Council Session of the UNHRC Wednesday.
“In more than half of the records reviewed, the law enforcement agents involved failed to follow standard protocols pertaining to coordination with other agencies and processing of the crime scene,” he said.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) has been informed of the review panel’s initial findings. In turn, the PNP told them that their Internal Affairs Service (IAS) investigated thousands of these incidents and scores of police officers had been recommended for administrative and criminal action.
The review panel referred to gathered information from Bulacan, including San Jose del Monte City; Pampanga, including Angeles City; Cavite, including Bacoor City, and parts of the National Capital Region (NCR).
A functioning legal system
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque says that Guevarra’s admission before the UNHRC only demonstrates the legal system still works.
“That proves that our domestic legal system is working and there is no need for other institutions to intervene. Let us give our legal system a chance to function since we have transparency and open-mindedness on the part of no less than our secretary of justice,” Roque said.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) welcomes Guevarra’s statements and calls for the release of the panel’s full report.
“We appreciate that the Secretary of Justice declared that they will cooperate with us and committed to include us in the case buildup and evidence gathering in order to bridge victims of human rights violations with government,” says the CHR.
The UN Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council holds three regular sessions a year, for a total of at least ten weeks. These meetings take place in March (four weeks), June (three weeks) and September (three weeks).
If one third of the Member States requests so, the Human Rights Council can decide at any time to hold a special session to address human rights violations and emergencies. (JSM/JuanManila)
MANILA — A bleak turnout of only 19 percent of adult Filipinos in a survey by OCTA Research are willing to to get COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, nearly half are not at all willing to get inoculated even if a safe and effective vaccine becomes available.
Of 1,200 respondents, in the Tugon ng Masa survey, 46 percent will not take any jabs even as the country waits for the arrival of the needed doses. Roughly a third or 35 percent are undecided about getting vaccinated.
A low 14 percent, meanwhile, intend to avail of the vaccines among those in Balance Luzon. Also, a quarter in Metro Manila (25%) and Mindanao (26%), and a fifth in the Visayas (20%) are willing to get jabs.
Inclined to get vaccinated among Class D (18%) is slightly lower than those of Class ABC and Class E, both at 23%. (JSM/JuanManila)
MANILA — “We appeal (to authorities) for this (Sinovac) data to be made available to the public in the spirit of transparency, so that we will understand why the FDA provides such recommendation,” says Dr. Aileen Espina in an interview over GMA’s Balitanghali program Friday.
The Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC), in which Espina is a member, says they were not briefed on the information that the Sinovac vaccine has been recommended to healthcare workers. In a matter of days the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shifted from not recommending Sinovac to healthcare workers to saying the vaccine can be given to them because it “is safe to use”.
The vaccines are expected to arrive on Sunday, the FDA now recommends the Sinovac vaccines to the health workers, top priority individuals, when Monday it initially said the vaccine may not be suitable to them because of its 50.4% efficacy rating in a study in Brazil. It has also been granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the agency on the same day.
On Friday, a new recommendation was reached. “The DOH (Department of Health), the Food and Drug Administration and our panel of experts concurred that current available evidence is enough to establish that the vaccine is safe for use,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said during a briefing on Friday with members of the NITAG (National Immunization Technical Advisory Group) and the DOH Technical Advisory Group (TAG).
“Tatanggapin namin ang kahit na anong bakuna basta dumaan lang po ito sa tamang proseso, ibig sabihin meron siyang EUA issued by FDA, na-technical review po siya ng HTAC (Health Technology Assessment Council), at na-allocate ng NITAG,” Espina said. She urges Filipinos not to compete with each other in acquiring inoculation.
“Alam niyo naman po ang mga Pinoy, mahilig makipagkompitensya. Hindi po ito race o paunahan. Ang importante po sa vaccination program is to make best use ng vaccines,” she says.
The Philippines is in a “relatively good position” ahead of its vaccination program, as compared with other countries that immediately needed their inoculation rollout due to their high COVID-19 death rates, she says.
“Hindi naman po talaga natin kailangang magmadali, but rather we should be prudent sa paggamit ng mga bakuna,” she says. (JSM/JuanManila)
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced the steps his government will take to end England’s lockdown over the coming months.
Lifting restrictions will be split into four stages, with a minimum of five weeks between each to observe the effects of easing restrictions. Criteria—concerning vaccine rollout and effectiveness, infection rates and mutations—will need to be met each time the country is due to move onto the next stage.
Easing restrictions will begin with the reopening of schools on March 8. Here, three academics give their view on the government’s plans.
Andrew Lee, Reader in Global Public Health, University of Sheffield
Without adequate control measures, the epidemic could rapidly escalate, overwhelming public health systems and necessitating painful lockdowns to restore control. With that in mind, the proposed phased release from lockdown, allowing the impact of each phase to be assessed before the next, is a fairly measured approach. There is, though, no zero-risk solution.
It’s right that schools are the first sector to open up: the adverse impacts of lockdown on children have been substantial, including the loss of learning opportunities. Reopening schools fully will lead to new infections, but this is to be expected and is not a cause for alarm. We know the disease tends to be mild in children.
The risk of school infections also reflects infection levels in the community. Falling infections across society mean schools are relatively safe. There are also generally fewer infections in children than in adults, so there is unlikely to be a significant impact on healthcare services. The decision to require secondary school pupils to wear face coverings in class is also a welcome measure.
This could include younger adults, key workers and high-risk professions where there is more social mixing such as supermarket or hospitality industry staff. Such an approach could help drive down infections more quickly, offset the risks of opening up other sectors of the economy, and perhaps allow a quicker return to some semblance of normality.
Peter Sivey, Reader in Health Economics, University of York
Overall, the government’s plan for relaxing restrictions seems sensible. This plan implicitly recognizes that despite worries about the new more transmissible variants of the virus, the current lockdown has been very successful in bringing down cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Slightly more so, in fact, than the UK’s first lockdown.
Measured from the peak in January, the number of patients in hospital has fallen by 58% after 34 days. During the the first lockdown last year, the number of patients in hospital had fallen by only 54% after 34 days. With deaths, the seven-day average has fallen by 56% in the 22 days since the January peak. At the same point after the peak of the first wave in April 2020 deaths had fallen by only 49%.
It is important to prioritize reopening schools after children and parents have shouldered such a heavy burden during the pandemic. I would have liked to see the reopening starting earlier and being phased-in as in Scotland. This has the benefit of getting younger children back into school earlier and testing how much additional virus transmission is added by some schoolchildren returning to the classroom.
It’s also welcome to focus the first relaxation of socializing rules on outdoor gatherings, as we know from research that transmission of the coronavirus outdoors is very rare.
The later parts of the reopening plan are ambitious, with many sectors of the economy (such as domestic travel and indoor hospitality) “back to normal” as early as May 17. This plan is sensibly subject to review. But with the vaccine programme progressing very fast – and the early evidence released today showing the vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe disease (though this still needs to be reviewed by other scientists)—an ambitious plan is warranted.
Zania Stamataki, Senior Lecturer in Viral Immunology, University of Birmingham
The stepwise easing of restrictions is prudent, and the four tests that need to be fulfilled are sensible. However, we are not addressing the thousands of new infections recorded daily in the UK, even under lockdown.
Why are we still recording over 10,000 new cases daily? We can’t simply fall back into our old practices and hope that the outcome will be different. For example, what extra steps are we taking to protect teachers and children before schools reopen on March 8? There is some early evidence that vaccines reduce transmission, but currently no plans to prioritize vaccinating teachers.
If we don’t tackle transmission, we will facilitate the faster emergence of dangerous variants and repeat last year’s experiences. Variants are unpredictable, but they take over their predecessors precisely because they have evolved advantageous traits, which arise as a result of new infections. If we don’t curb transmission, we will be forced to tighten our control measures again, and we can’t afford further lockdowns.
We have vaccinated a third of adults with a first dose, with plans to extend this to all adults in the next few months. Early, unreviewed data is showing that vaccine-induced protection from COVID-19 is holding true after a number of weeks, with people set to receive their second dose at three months.
But are there plans for a surveillance system to monitor how long immunity will last in vaccinated people? This will differ across age groups and in those with other conditions. How will we decide when to vaccinate again, to keep transmission down and protect our vulnerable? How will we know who has achieved immunity and who needs to continue to shield and receive further boosters? We need to plan for this too.
MANILA — So capping prices of meat products did not work. The market reacted to a tighter meat supply. There was no price reduction, which consumers and lawmakers lamented over. Now the Department of Agriculture contemplates on recalling the executive order that imposed the caps.
During Monday’s Senate hearing on agriculture and food, Agriculture Secretary William Dar mentioned that Malacañan may be asked to withdraw EO 124 and break the extended “pork and chicken holiday” that market vendors in Metro Manila postured amid rising prices.
“As regards supply, we still have enough supply, we mobilized hogs from regions in the country. Even the prices are going down and it’s working,” Dar relied to Sen. Risa Hontiveros query during the hearing.
“We are going to study your recommendation on the price ceiling, if we can recommend to the President to stop it,” Dar said in Filipino.
The ASF factor
The African swine fever (ASF), which had caused too much loss even before the onset of the pandemic, had not been properly addressed. The supply gap created by the culling of a huge number of infected hogs grew as more attention shifted to issues on the coronavirus pandemic. Pork supply started to dwindle as the country went through the lockdown phases. According to some farmers whose hogs were culled, there was lack or no support from Government as regards their loss.
Retail Prices of Selected Agri-fishery Commodities in Selected Markets in Metro Manila as of 15 Jan 20 & 15 Jan 21
15 January 2021 Prices
15 January 2020 Prices
Egg (medium) per piece
Whole Chicken per kg
Pork Ham (Kasim) per kg
Pork Liempo per kg
Beef Rump per kg
Beef Brisket per kg
By the end of 2020, prices of pork products have skyrocketed as demand during the holidays rose even more. The DA’s price monitoring office that records prices of fresh meat in select markets across Metro Manila has seen the shift in prices. The reports it post indicate marked price differences with an average of 86 percent increase from January 2020 to January 2021 of prices in both pork ham (kasim) and pork liempo (belly). By June 2020, prices in the same items started soaring to an average of 20 percent higher than its January 2020 prices.
The DA has all the figures to commence comprehensive studies early on in mitigating sharp increase in food prices in a time when lockdowns resulted to massive job loss and economic downturn. As the agency responsible for the promotion of agricultural development and food security, the DA’s deficiencies are glaring.
EO 124, as a desperate act and an unstudied move that even President Duterte was at first hesitant to sign the order, created more problems than it could solve. The entire hog farm industry had been affected, that calls for lowering feeds and other farm supplies had been aired in order to lower production costs, if only the Government were to look into the nitty-gritty of hog-raising.
Capping pork prices at a rate lower than the prevailing prices it monitors in select markets around Metro Manila would call for a pork and chicken holiday—counter-productive and illogical. It could have been prevented if someone had looked longer into their data early on.
Hog traders and vendors have claimed that the price ceilings are too low given high production costs. They are holding a pork holiday to protest the executive order (EO).
Hontiveros asked whether or not there has been an assessment on the impact of the EO as it apparently has not achieved its desired effect.
“Why has it come to this, pork holidays? And they have been forced to stop selling and transporting,” asked Hontiveros. “Clearly, imposing these price ceilings has only worsened our food crisis.”
With a warning that the 60-day effectivity of the EO was too long, vendors would “instead of just going on holiday, our meat sellers would resign,” Hontiveros pointed out.
Hontiveros expressed that the price caps have been criticized by market vendors, farmers, economists and lawmakers for being unfeasible, brought about by high transport costs for pork and chicken supplies, and make the mandated prices too low to be tenable.
That instead of helping consumers, she said, the move has forced some vendors and traders to close shop.
The DA should look into more feasible and effective approaches to bringing down food prices while increasing food supplies in the country, such as expanding the number of hog raisers and suppliers covered by the insurance program of the PCIC (Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation).
Hontiveros also urged the DA and other related agencies to act with more haste in formulating and implementing programs to deal with rising costs of food products. (JSM/JuanManila)
MANILA — Bayan Muna party-list Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate chides the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) that it should be accountable for its “suspicious practices of consumer overcharging and profiteering” and not just the ₱13.9 billion that it will refund to consumers.
Zarate makes the call after the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) approved a petition to refund ₱13.9 billion to Meralco’s customers. The average refund for Meralco customers was set at ₱0.1528 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the customer class.
“While it is welcome that Meralco will finally refund ₱13.9 billion of its overcharging for the 2015 to 2020 period, we call the company to also hasten and include in the refund the billions more for almost the same period,” the party-list solon says in a statement.
Zarate says Meralco should be “made accountable for all the amount it overcharged its captive consumers.”
“It should not be made to appear that they filed for the lower ₱13.9 billion refund to obscure or cover up the ₱29 billion refund we demanded for the 2013 to 2018 period,” he points out.
Meanwhile, Meralco vice president and corporate head Joe Zaldarriaga reiterates denials on the allegations made by Bayan Muna and consumer groups on the reported ₱66-billion over-recovery that the power distribution firm reportedly earned for the past several years.
Zaldarriaga dismisses the said claims as purely “rehashed and reused” as he stresses that Meralco “has not, and will not, in any way, charge customers for more than what is allowed under the law as approved by the energy regulator.”
The Meralco official says that the allegations did not provide the whole picture despite being lifted from the power distribution firm’s postings and disclosures. He assures the public that Meralco has not been overcharging its customers and reiterates that all their transactions have been above-board and totally compliant with applicable laws, rules, and regulations.
However, Zarate is urging the House Committee on Energy to fast track its probe on the reported ₱66 billion over-recovery of Meralco. (JSM/JuanManila)
MANILA — Despite the popular mistrust of the China-manufactured Sinovac vaccines, President Rodrigo Duterte is apparently gambling his political future when he wants to be present when the first 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines arrive in the country.
On Wednesday, 24 February, presidential spokesman Harry Roque disclosed that the President himself wants to be there when the initial shipment of Sinovac is delivered to the Philippines.
Some senators have earlier questioned the government’s deal with Sinovac and even urged for its immediate cancellation.
“Why would I choose a brand with only 50% efficacy and doesn’t even have an application for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA)?” Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson asked.
Pro-administration Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri described Sinovac’s 50% efficacy rate as “a joke” and “totally unacceptable.”
He added that procuring the Sinovac vaccine would be “a total waste of our funds and resources.”
Even Duterte’s most loyal ally Senator Bong Go has expressed alarm, citing the public’s growing apprehension of the Sinovac serum.
“Napapansin ko po when I asked the people around the country, gusto po nilang magpa-vaccine. Pero po ang tanong, kung sino po ang mauuna. Ayaw po nila na sila mauna. Nagtuturuan po kung sino ang mauuna.” (The people I asked around the country do want to be vaccinated. But the question is, who will take the first shot? They are not willing to go first.), Go told his fellow senators last January 15.
There is still no definite date of arrival of the much-awaited Sinovac vaccine, known officially as CoronaVac.
Helen Yang, general manager of Sinopharm’s Hong Kong office, said the shipment may arrive either “this week or next week.”
Roque further said there may be a “small ceremony” when the vaccines arrive since they are donations from the Chinese government.
“We Filipinos, we want to pay our debt of gratitude. In our time of need, our friends in China brought us our first vaccine,” Roque quipped, speaking for the President. (JSM/JuanManila)
MANILA — Amidst the skyrocketing prices of meat products and in spite of the price ceiling imposed by authorities, the Department of Finance (DoF) has ordered the Bureau of Customs (BoC) to heighten its security against the entry of smuggled pork done by a number unscrupulous businessmen who are out to rake profits in their illegal activities.
In a statement, finance secretary Carlos Dominguez III says that the government needs to be more vigilant against smuggling, particularly with regards to meat products. He wants a tighter watch over the possible misdeclaration or misclassification of pork shipments entering the country.
Dominguez has issued the directive after President Rodrigo Duterte approved in principle the recommendation of the Department of Agriculture (DA) to expand the minimum access volume (MAV) allocation for pork imports as a means of addressing the superficial shortage in meat products that have caused price hikes in several meat items, including frozen pork, chicken, beef and even fish.
The finance chief points out that some importers may under-declare their pork shipments to avoid paying higher import duties. The current tariff on pork within the MAV is at 30 percent, while off-quota imports are taxed a higher 40 percent.
“Edible offal (entrails) of bovine animals, such as swine, sheep, and goats are taxed much lower, which some importers may declare as prime pork shipments to avoid paying higher import duties,” Dominguez asserts.
Meanwhile, customs commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero assures that the bureau has been closely monitoring the importation of all meat products to protect the affected industries that could be impacted by the influx of imported meat. (JSM/JuanManila)
Featured image: Confiscated items of illegally-shipped pork and meat products by the Bureau of Customs (Photo by BOC)
MANILA — Ecumenical organizations led by university students and young theologians are calling on Filipino Christians to practice self-denial more than religious piety during Lent.
In a statement released recently, proponents of Prophet Project, an organization composed of young Catholics and other Christians, assert that religions (all over the world and across the Philippines) must transcend books by putting faith into practice.
“We need modern-day prophets. We are a community seeking to integrate faith and justice, deep spirituality, and radical praxis. We uphold Jesus as a Savior and Liberator offering us liberation from personal and social oppression,” the group says in a social media post to mark this year’s Lenten season which traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday, 12 February.
Pointing to how religious practices like fasting and abstinence can create positive impacts on Philippine society, the group explains that “there is so much power in a religion, as a social institution, (and this could serve as a way) to bring us together,” Prophet Project’s proponents add.
“Fasting, a form of self-sacrifice, could propel one to think about more than himself but about others who are poor and underprivileged. Jesus teaches us that self-denial is not passive, compliant religious piety. Rather, it is a disposition that feels and bears the weight of those who are hungry and are in need, and thus spurs the action of giving and deeper solidarity. It is a disposition grounded in justice and compassion,” they explain.
In doing “acts of justice” this Lent, the group says, it believes its members can fulfill a prophetic role.
“The call to be prophetic is more urgent than ever. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy,” it underscores.
“Fasting is a duty required of the disciples of Christ, but it is not so much a duty itself, as a means to dispose us towards other duties . . . especially in helping the poor, those who do not have jobs, the hungry and the sick. Fasting should lead to giving.”
The Prophet Project has been active in various Catholic donation drives such as helping victims of super typhoons Rolly (Goni) and Ulysses (Vamco) in 2020.
Recently, it has joined protests against a controversial new anti-terror law, which critics say attacks people’s civil liberties, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, that has allegedly killed thousands of innocent lives. (JSM/JuanManila)
WASHINGTON — Covid-19 death toll in the United States surpassed the 500,000 mark on Monday, based on data from the Johns Hopkins University. By far the highest of any country in the world, with 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million global deaths from coronavirus.
The number of deaths exceed the US death death toll from World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.
A truly grim, heartbreaking milestone
President Joe Biden says the death toll is a “truly grim, heartbreaking milestone.”
“As a nation, we can’t accept such a cruel fate. While we’ve been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to sorrow,” Biden says during an emotional speech at the White House.
“I ask all Americans to remember, remember those we lost and those they left behind,” he says. “I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to stay socially distant, to mask up, to get vaccinated.”
Church bells rang 500 times at the National Cathedral in Washington to symbolize the 500,000 people who lost their lives during the pandemic. On the White House steps, 500 candles were lit to commemorate the dead as a military band played a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
President Biden has ordered all flags on federal properties and military facilities to be lowered to half-staff until Friday evening.
Political divisions contributed to “stunning” death toll
“Political divisions in the US had contributed to the “stunning” death toll, where even mask wearing has become a political statement, rather than a public health measure,” Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert says.
“Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a very serious problem,” Fauci told the Reuters news agency.
“However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world,” says.
Dropping number of cases and deaths
The number of new cases and deaths show a decreasing trend over the past several weeks despite the bleak milestone.
On 21 January, the seven-day average of US COVID-19 deaths reached 4,000. On 21 February, that average was 1,890, according to the COVID tracking project.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccination campaign in the US, which began in December, has covered a total of 64.2 million people. However, despite the dip in deaths and cases, and mass vaccination campaigns, a model from the University of Washington has predicted at least 90,000 more COVID-related deaths in the US by June. (JSM/JuanManila)
Featured image: US President Joe Biden and the First Lady.