IN the past few weeks, Covid-19 cases in the National Capital Region (NCR) Plus, which covers Metro Manila and the four provinces on its outskirts - Rizal, Bulacan, Cavite and Laguna - have gone down significantly. Fewer hospital beds reserved for Covid patients are occupied.

That's the good news. It means that the government is finally making headway in controlling the spread of the virus in the NCR Plus "bubble."

The bad news is caseloads in other urban centers such as the cities of Davao and Zamboanga have been rising at an alarming rate.

About a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, the country seems to be caught in a Catch-22 situation.

The cases may have gone down, but not to levels safe enough to allow the restrictions choking the economy to be fully lifted. Even with more establishments and services reopening, the majority of the people are still afraid to venture out of their homes for fear of getting infected.

The government has begun mass vaccination but cannot go full blast because the vaccine supply has not stabilized.

And even with more vaccines becoming available, less than half of the population is willing to submit to a Covid shot.

It is this glaring reluctance to take a jab that Health authorities must address.

Scenes from the Ospital ng Maynila in Malate, Manila on May 29, 2021 as citizens under the A1, A2 and A3 category are given their vaccination against COVID-19 with the Sputnik V vaccine for their second dose. PHOTO BY RENE H. DILAN
Scenes from the Ospital ng Maynila in Malate, Manila on May 29, 2021 as citizens under the A1, A2 and A3 category are given their vaccination against COVID-19 with the Sputnik V vaccine for their second dose. PHOTO BY RENE H. DILAN

Vaccine hesitancy is not unique to the Philippines. It is, like the coronavirus pandemic itself, a global malaise.

The United Nations (UN) has recognized the severity of the vaccine hesitancy problem and the need to counter it. Last April, more than 181 UN member states voiced support for "The Political Declaration on Equitable Global Access to Covid-19 Vaccines." Aside from expressing concern about the uneven distribution of vaccines worldwide, the member states committed to cooperate with the UN's "Verified" initiative that aims to "produce and disseminate factual, timely, targeted, clear, accessible, multilingual and science-based information" to combat vaccine hesitancy.

In the Philippines, surveys have consistently shown that half of the population remains unwilling to get inoculated against Covid-19.

This can only mean that the government has not been persuasive enough in "selling" vaccination as the most effective weapon in beating the pandemic.

The most common reasons for rejecting the vaccine are: possible side effects, fear of dying after getting jabbed, comorbidity and age ("I'm too old to get inoculated.")

The fear of death from vaccination has been lingering since 2016 when several schoolchildren died after being administered with the Dengvaxia anti-dengue vaccine. The controversy implanted a mistrust against any vaccine in the minds of many Filipinos.

The fallout from the Dengvaxia scare has thrown a monkey wrench into the government's inoculation programs against measles, polio and now, Covid-19.

Vaccination czar Carlito Galvez said the Dengvaxia issue also made it difficult for the country to negotiate Covid vaccine agreements with pharmaceutical companies, which wanted an indemnity-free clause in their contracts.

The government may need to fine-tune its vaccination information campaign. First, the message must be simple and clear: getting inoculated is safer than getting infected, which is the World Health Organization's mantra.

Getting a shot also protects the people around you. It means you are doing your share in fighting the pandemic.

It is, likewise, important to drum up the fact that the Covid-19 vaccines have been approved by the country's Food and Drug Administration and have gone through extensive clinical trials and studies.

The "infodemic" - myths and false stories about Covid-19 that abound on social media - must be countered with webinars and other forums espousing vaccine literacy and acceptance.

During a recent Manila Times roundtable discussion, one of the speakers suggested that the government enlist the help of the private sector to convince people to get a Covid-19 shot.

Another speaker said employers should take the time to understand why their workers refuse to be vaccinated. "Let us put ourselves in their shoes," the speaker said.

Finally, it is imperative that the government protect its vaccination program from political contamination. Insinuations that the program is being influenced by political maneuverings ahead of the presidential elections next year could compromise or disrupt vaccine supply and delivery decisions.

Ill-conceived suggestions to get political figures to endorse vaccination only fuel such suspicions and must be ignored.