Scapegoating 101

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By all means, hold the big pharma company liable. But don’t forget to go after those who purchased the anti-dengue vaccine and propagated its use, as well.

I’m bothered by the growing clamor to hold French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi solely responsible for the anomalous purchase and use of P3.5 billion worth of its Dengvaxia vaccine. While I’ve always believed that Sanofi is to blame, it seems that the company is being made into a convenient scapegoat even for actions for which the Philippine government is responsible.

So when the presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, said yesterday that President Rodrigo Duterte wants to hold the pharma’s feet to the flame, on the basis of the recommendation of the Department of Health, pardon me if I don’t jump for joy. After all, the DoH, particularly its head during the previous administration, Janette Garin, was Sanofi’s very willing partner in the procurement and distribution of the controversial drug.

And even after the Duterte administration continued the vaccination program, it was still the DoH - with the help of many of its senior and mid-level officials who remained in office as holdovers - who ran the Dengvaxia show. That the department was neck-deep in its involvement in the scandal, from approval to procurement to implementation, is as clear as the Sanofi logo on the tiny boxes containing the vaccine.

Making matters worse is the fact that Roque himself is not completely unbiased and uninvolved in the whole controversy. The presidential spokesman, when he was still a party-list congressman, is known to have roundly criticized Duterte’s choice to head up the DoH; Paulynn Ubial was supposedly pressured by Congress to continue the Dengvaxia program and to extend its use to the Central Visayas region in exchange for her confirmation which, ironically, was withheld from her despite her acquiescence.

But that’s what Roque said yesterday. The President, the spokesman said, “stands by the recommendation of the DoH to hold Sanofi responsible.”

Now, if it were any other agency that made the recommendation to go after Sanofi - say, the Department of Justice, which is conducting its own investigation of the scandal - I wouldn’t be so skeptical. But if the DoH, now headed by Francisco Duque, says it wants Sanofi to pay for the mess, it sounds like the department is just engaged in a massive, self-serving coverup.

Note, as well, that Duque is himself subject to the same “pressures” that Senator Richard Gordon keeps talking about, since Duque still has to go through the same Congress wringer that ended Ubial’s stint as DoH head. How hard would it be to convince Duque that his own confirmation could hinge on letting his officials and the lawmakers who helped Sanofi get off the hook?

And if we allow the former and present DoH officials and the members of Congress involved in the Dengvaxia scandal to walk, does this mean that Noynoy Aquino, his budget officials and everyone else involved get to do the same? Say it ain’t so, Harry.

If all the executives of Sanofi were lynched and all the company’s funds distributed to the families injected with Dengvaxia, it still wouldn’t alter the reality that the government bought the vaccine and used it on an unsuspecting public.

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Officials of Camarines Sur province are raising a howl over the allocation of P224.5 million in the proposed 2018 budget for the construction of a new airport in San Jose town, instead for setting aside funds for the improvement and upgrading of the existing Pili airport just 30 kilometers away. Congressmen led by Rep. Lray Villafuerte want to know if the building of an entirely new airport is better than improving the old one - a scheme that they say will only benefit one local politico’s family that has invested a lot of money in the land surrounding the new one in San Jose.

The upgrading of the Pili airport, after all, is included in a 2014 master plan drawn up by the then Department of Transportation and Communications. The San Jose proposal is only being pushed by the Partido Development Administration, which is reportedly deeply in debt and controlled by former Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella.

Villafuerte has written President Rodrigo Duterte, Congress leaders, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia and Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno to ask if the funds set aside in the new budget cannot be realigned for the worthier improvement of the Pili airport. Villafuerte expressed fears that the San Jose gateway may end up as a white elephant, with the government ending up wasting much-needed funds that could be better spent for other projects under its ambitious “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

In his letter, Villafuerte said that the National Economic Development Authority has identified the upgrading of the Pili airport as a priority project as early as 2013 after conducting exhaustive studies on possible gateways to the province and the rest of the Bicol region. On the other hand, the San Jose airport plan has not undergone serious study; the various stakeholders and local residents of the province have not been consulted on the plan to build the new airport, he said.