Cows for Covid-19 jabs: Philippines seeks to overcome vaccine hesitancy with perks

A man rests inside a cinema complex after being inoculated with the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine in San Juan City, on June 1, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - How about a cow for a jab? It may not be as eye-popping as a US$1 million (S$1.3 million) lottery win, but innovative rewards are being offered here too, to entice people to take a Covid-19 vaccine.

The mayor of a farming town an hour's drive north of Manila is promising to raffle a cow each month, starting September, to get his constituents to take shots of the vaccines from China or Russia. His town, with its small population and few cases, is not expecting to get the vaccine till September.

One of the cities that make up Metro Manila is offering 25kg of rice in a weekly raffle for those already vaccinated.

Other cities are hiring motorised rickshaw drivers to give those willing to get jabbed free rides, or deploying "vaccine buses" to get to poorer, less accessible districts.

A mayor in a small town in Ilocos Sur province, 230km north of Manila, is giving away a plot of land with a house in a raffle he has scheduled for December, when he hopes enough vaccine doses will finally reach his corner of the country.

A lawmaker, whose family is a big property developer and one of the country's wealthiest, is offering a house-and-plot bonanza and topping that off with two motorcycles and 50 livelihood packages worth 50,000 pesos (S$1,385) each.

Malls that have been providing space for the vaccine roll-out have been offering banana fritters and free parking.

Some restaurants, including McDonald's, are offering discounts to those with proof of vaccination.

These are modest incentives compared with those being offered in the United States.

A 22-year-old engineer last week won US$1 million in Ohio's lottery for those who have got at least one shot of a vaccine.

California is offering US$100 million in US$50 prepaid cards for the next two million newly vaccinated people and US$16.5 million in cash prizes for all vaccinated Californians.

But politicians and public health officials are hoping that the more modest perks here can help convince people to step forward and get jabbed.

Vaccine hesitancy is real in the Philippines. Only a third of Filipinos are willing to get inoculated, according to a poll last month.

The rest, uncertain or unwilling, cited possible side effects as their top reason for hesitating. Others questioned the vaccines' safety or efficacy, while some were even afraid they could die from getting vaccinated.

Among those willing to get jabbed, there is a heavy preference - three in five - for vaccines from the US. Only one in five said it did not matter to them if the vaccines came from China.

These biases are likely to be magnified once the Philippines begins vaccinating the majority of its population.

The country has so far limited vaccination to front-line healthcare workers, the elderly and those with comorbidities.

Just 5.18 million from these groups have been vaccinated, with about 1.2 million getting two doses.

But with 30 million vaccine doses expected to arrive in the next three months, the government is set to allow other groups - migrant workers, those working at restaurants, supermarkets and other retail outlets, journalists and the poor - to line up for shots.

Hesitancy is strongest among the poor, who make up the bulk of those who will soon be eligible for vaccines.

Among those in lower-income tiers, especially "in congested and interior areas, more or less 40 per cent don't want to be vaccinated", said Mr Carlito Galvez, a former military chief and the country's "vaccine czar".

These are the groups expected to respond well to vaccine enticements.

"We're not bribing them. It's just marketing," said Mr Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman.

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