CALOOCAN CITY, Philippines — Laying down mats to sleep, standing in long lines, and skipping meals: hundreds of people waited outside a mall in one of the most populous cities in Metro Manila last week. But they weren’t buying a concert ticket or the latest iPhone. They were trying to get a coronavirus vaccine.
Learning from a failed attempt the previous day, Salve de Guzman showed up outside the vaccination site in Caloocan City around 11:30 p.m on Wednesday, some nine hours before the mall, which doubled as a vaccination site, opened.
“Yesterday, we arrived here at 5:00 a.m. and there were too many people already, we did not make it to the cut,” the 43-year-old housewife told VICE World News. “So I told myself, I’d sleep early, wake up and be the first in line.”
The Philippine capital region is gearing up its vaccine rollout as part of a nationwide effort to inoculate three quarters of its 110 million people by the end of the year. But unlike the United States, where many vaccine hubs sit empty, stockpiles expire, and various incentives are offered, some sites in the Philippines have filled up quickly because of a desire for specific brands.
“We slept on the floor and leaned against the wall for hours. It’s hard but it’s okay as long as we get the vaccine that we deserve.”
Waiting isn’t unique to the Philippines and not all sites have lines, but the country is also dealing with surging cases, vaccination rates that lag behind its neighbors, and limited supply.
“We slept on the floor and leaned against the wall for hours. It’s hard but it’s okay as long as we get the vaccine that we deserve,” De Guzman said.
Over the course of a long, hot night, people brought chairs, squatted on the street to rest, and dozed for a few hours before the site opened. They brought light meals to get them through the wait, and many were glued to their phones to pass the time.
There’s also a gamble involved. When the Philippines received its first batch of Pfizer vaccines in May, a large crowd quickly formed at sites that dispensed the popular brand. President Rodrigo Duterte then ordered cities not to advertise the specific brand to encourage Filipinos to get what is available, and to prevent crowds. But social media and word of mouth have made it difficult to keep the secret.
“If it’s not Pfizer, why should I get vaccinated?”
Before her shot, De Guzman said that if she wasn’t offered Pfizer when her turn came, she would refuse and go home, despite waiting for hours.
“If it’s not Pfizer, why should I get vaccinated?” she said, explaining that she can wait for a few more months when more vaccines are expected to be shipped into the country. “As a citizen, it is my right to choose what is safe for me. After all, I am one of those who would pay for it.”
The Philippines has so far received shipments of 17.5 million vaccines. The majority of the supply is from China’s Sinovac. The country is expecting between 40 to 50 million more doses of vaccines to be shipped from July to September.
The World Health Organization approved Sinovac for emergency use earlier this month, but the Philippines has been rolling it out since March. Some Filipino health workers even declined Sinovac jabs offered to them because some clinical trials showed it to be only a little more than 50 percent effective against infection. Meanwhile, the Pfizer jab’s 95-percent efficacy rate caused more anticipation when shipments of the brand were announced.
Media reports about surging cases in countries that have relied on Sinovac, as well as the highly publicized deaths of 10 doctors in Indonesia who had reportedly received the jab have appeared to undermine trust in it, too.
“We prefer Pfizer because we don’t know what will happen to us if we get something else,” said 57-year-old Ruthie Acibar, who came with her husband Artemio. The couple are fruit and vegetable vendors.
As the night dragged on, Acibar complained that she was getting sleepy, and said that it was already their second day lining up early. Health was not their primary concern either. Her husband Artemio said they were worried about Duterte’s threat to jail those who refuse to get vaccinated, even though there is no law that compels people to get the jab.
“This is not for our safety. This is just compliance, so we could freely go out. Our world is shrinking if we don’t get vaccinated. That’s why even if it’s against our will, we will comply,” Artemio said.
Only three out of 10 Filipinos are willing to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to the most recent survey. Yet the scenes of long lines of people desperate to get their shots in Metro Manila belie this figure.
“Vaccine hesitancy is not the problem. Vaccine supply is the biggest problem,” Senator Nancy Binay said in a TV interview following Duterte’s arrest remarks. “It’s not as if our fellow Filipinos don’t want to be inoculated.”
“People have been sacrificing too much to get vaccinated,” Benz Mayorga, who also stood in line at 1:30 am outside the mall in Caloocan, told VICE World News, adding that in other countries like the U.S., it’s easier to get the vaccine at walk-in sites like pharmacy chains.
“It’s really the government’s fault. They encourage people to get the vaccine but they really lack supply,” he said.
But unlike most people in line, the 36-year-old office worker said he’s willing to get whatever brand is available.
After a slow start, however, things may be picking up.
On Monday, the Philippines hit the 10-million mark for the number of vaccines administered since the immunization program started in March this year.
“We’re a little short on supply now and the private sector has yet to roll out its vaccination program,” Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said at the ceremony marking 10 million jabs.
“But we can be assured that in the coming days, in July, we can administer 500,000 jabs a day. By then, we can easily administer six to eight million shots or even 10 million shots a month,” he added.
Various cities in Metro Manila have each found solutions to avoid crowding at vaccination sites, such as stopping walk-ins and only allowing appointments. In one city, so many people attempted to book their vaccine appointment online that it jammed the servers of the web portal.
But for those who stick it out, the wait is worth it.
After 10 hours and 30 minutes, de Guzman finally had her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“At last, I got what I came for,” she said in a follow-up interview.
Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter.