(Editor's Note: This article was first published on Feb. 11, 2021 and was updated on Feb. 28, 2021 to reflect the arrival of COVID vaccines)
(UPDATE) The Philippines is expected to start its COVID-19 vaccination program as early as March, a milestone event that will define the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte, analysts said.
The President on Sunday received the country's first ever vaccine shipment, courtesy of Beijing -- 600,000 doses of the Sinovac jab. He promised a swift rollout and a return to "normal" life by 2023.
"The delivery of the first batch, I hope, will serve as a guarantee to everyone that we are taking a big first step to overcome this crisis," he said.
The outcome of the vaccination drive will reflect on Duterte's leadership in his last full year in office, said Dennis Coronacion, chair of the University of Santo Tomas Department of Political Science.
"He's very good with words but what about actions? It reflects his management style especially when it comes to matters that require coordinated action," Coronacion told reportr.
It needs to move fast
The first vaccines to arrive are courtesy of COVAX -- a global alliance that ensures equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. It includes the World Health Organization. This means that most of the shots are free and the Philippines only needs to pay for around a quarter of its share.
The fact that COVAX came ahead of negotiated procurements shows how red tape is hobbling the process. Things need to move fast, Coronacion told reportr. "We are in a crisis mode, mabilisan dapat," he said.
Duterte had blamed the limited global supply of vaccines for delays in the Philippines' immunization program. In his Feb. 8 address to the nation, he said the government was moving "as fast as we can."
"I think that we have reasonably --- we did our assignment. And ganito na lang, we are waiting for the vaccines to arrive and to immediately implement the required mandate and that is to mabakunahan lahat. And we will do it as fast as the vaccines will come in," he said.
Aside from Pfizer, the government is negotiating supplies from AstraZeneca, Novavax, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Sinovac.
COVID-19 immunization czar Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr. had said that at least 5.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be delivered in the first half with succeeding shipments to follow.
Less politics, more action
Receiving an initial supply of COVID-19 vaccines is one thing, sustaining the government's immunization program is another, Coronacion said, noting that there is a need for "less politics."
"There are a lot of talking heads on this so it also adds to the confusion. The government has long been saying that they have a plan so they should just execute that plan," he said.
"At this point, it should be less politics and just more of a ministerial duty."
Local government units across the country have been tasked to prepare their own COVID-19 vaccination plans to help ease the process. Church leaders have also offered their facilities for the program.
"At this point, the focus should be on proper execution. Now, a problem could arise with egos. Alam mo naman dito sa Pilipinas, everyone wants to feel important, down to the barangay chairman," Coronacion said.
But whether the vaccination program will bruise President Duterte's enduring popularity remains to be seen according to Coronacion.
"It would definitely reflect on the effectiveness of his leadership but on whether it will affect the so-called 'Duterte magic' remains to be seen. It's too early to tell," he said.
Duterte had warned government officials from involving themselves in the vaccination program, saying he is only authorizing Galvez and Health Sec. Francisco Duque III to lead it.
"We will survive. And by the end of the --- the year, mukhang medyo na tayong --- hindi naman pinakamaganda, but magandang resulta sa pagod natin," Duterte said in his Feb. 8 speech.
"As I have said, the money belongs to the Filipino people. It credits --- the credit goes to no one. Sa inyo ito mga taong Pilipino, pera ninyo ito," he said.