Philippines vaccine mandate sees millions facing COVID-19 test fees

THE STRAITS TIMES – Millions of Filipinos face having to pay for their own COVID-19 tests as a new rule mandating vaccines in workplaces comes into force, even as essential workers in some parts of the country struggle to access shots.

As of yesterday, businesses will require employees entering offices to factories to be inoculated against the virus. The rule is being enacted despite the Southeast Asian nation having one of the lowest vaccination rates among major economies, with just 41 per cent of the population inoculated.

While the government acknowledges many people have not been able to access vaccines due to logistical and supply delays, it is making even those who have not been able to get a shot undergo regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antigen screenings at their own expense to be able to go to work.

Restaurants and government agencies will also be allowed to refuse entry or deny service to individuals who remain partly or wholly unvaccinated, with the measures part of a wider push by the government to boost the overall vaccination rate.

The authorities have not specified how often workers will need to get tested to access workplaces, but antigen tests typically cost around PHP2,000, while PCR tests can cost as much as PHP3,000 to PHP5,000.

Residents wait for their turn to be inoculated during a nationwide vaccination drive at a school in Navotas, Philippines. PHOTO: AP

The gross monthly minimum wage in the Philippines was the equivalent of USD10 in 2019, according to the International Labour Organisation. Labour secretary Silvestre Bello told Bloomberg News the “ideal situation” would be for all workers to be vaccinated, to ensure workplace safety.

“Since we can’t compel them until there’s a law that would require that, the next best thing we can do on the part of the employer is to require them to undergo testing,” Bello said in an interview. “This requirement is conditioned to the fact that we have available vaccines.”

Bello said consideration would be given to workers from remote areas where access to shots was available but limited, and that the vaccine mandate and testing rule would not apply in these areas. He did not, however, elaborate or specify any locations.

COVID-19 vaccines are widely available in Metro Manila, which accounts for a third of the Philippines’ economic output. Outside the capital region, however, widespread logistics challenges, from storage to transportation and distribution, hamper people’s ability to get inoculated.

Of the 35.5 million essential workers across the country, only 13.2 million were fully vaccinated as at November 28, according to government data. Besides poor access, the Philippines is also seeing some vaccine hesitancy, like in many parts of the world.