COVID-19 vaccination and ageism in the Philippines

Apr 12, 2021 | All posts, Opinions and contributions

By Peter Lloyd-Sherlock and Lucas Sempe
Additional information provided by Pamela Joy Mariano Capistrano, Ateneo de Manila University

The Global Platform has drawn attention to previous proposals to exclude or de-prioritise older people in COVID-19 vaccination programmes in countries such as Indonesia and Peru. For examples, see our blog on 12 February [i] and this comment published in the British Medical Journal [ii].

Concerns about these cases led to the following statement from the Director General of the World Health Organisation, which we very much welcome:

“There is a disturbing narrative in some countries that it’s OK if older people die. It’s not OK… It is important that everywhere older people are prioritised for vaccination. Those most at risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19, including health workers and older people, must come first. And they must come first everywhere.” [iii]

Official data report that over 15,000 people in the Philippines have died due to COVID-19 and the majority of those deaths have been people aged 60 or more [iv]. This is likely to be a substantial underestimate of the true number of deaths resulting from the pandemic. It calls for a robust vaccination campaign, prioritising those people at highest risk of dying or becoming seriously ill. It has been reported that the majority of Filipinos of all ages claim they do not want to be vaccinated. [v]

On 12 April 2021, with reference to the Philippines’ faltering COVID-19 vaccination programme, President Duterte, stated:

“Let’s prioritise those who, once they get a vaccine, there’s a chance that he would live and live productively. Most of the senior citizens are no longer that productive.” [vi].

This was not a lapse, nor was it an unguarded off-the-cuff comment. This was a carefully premeditated statement made in high profile pre-recorded speech. In line with the macho posturing of some other national leaders, Duterte boasted that he would  deny himself (aged 76) the vaccination. By making this perverse grand gesture, he appeared to be seeking to shame those “selfish older people” who have the temerity to seek vaccination.

As it happens, the large majority of the ten million adults aged 60 or more in the Philippines do not have a pension. Consequently, many have no alternative to remaining productive for as long as they possibly can. This point seems to have eluded the President.

In our other blogs, we set out the reasons why discouraging older people from being vaccinated against COVID-19 is wrong, both on moral grounds and in terms of public health effectiveness. Sadly, Duterte is unlikely to be the last global leader to take this reprehensible stance.