The military’s integrity faces a tough litmus test as it imposes rigid rules to discipline an elite unit tasked to ensure the security and safety of the president and his family.
Gen. Gilbert Gapay, chief of staff of the 150,000-member armed forces, has ordered a “thorough investigation” into the circumstances of the secret and selective inoculation of some members of the Presidential Security Guard (PSG) months before the vaccines developed by state-run Sinopharm were given the green light by Chinese authorities for public use.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also demanded a detailed explanation from the PSG on why it decided to use a vaccine not authorized by the local food and drug regulatory agency.
It could potentially place at risk soldiers’ health, because the efficacy and safety of the doses have yet to be established.
Both Lorenzana and Gapay distanced themselves from the vaccination, saying they were kept in the dark.
Lorenzana went as far as saying the doses were smuggled into the country, suggesting the PSG had violated a law.
However, both Lorenzana and Gapay were also quick to praise the PSG in its effort to take the risk just to protect the president, the primary mission of the regiment-size composite unit of the armed forces.
Thus, it became doubtful if senior defense and military officials would impose sanctions on the PSG for breaking the chain of command.
Soldiers are trained to follow orders from superiors. They cannot eat, sleep, move and fire their guns without any orders from superior officers.
They are trained to accomplish a mission or a goal and they have the option to take their own initiative as long as the objective is met.
However, there are orders being followed, either given verbally or in written form.
Thus, the military organization is unique. It operates like a machine with clock-work precision, like marching in a parade.
Therefore, it is unthinkable and illogical for Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante to decide to have his troops vaccinated with an unregistered vaccine without the knowledge of his superiors, as this would be a breach of military discipline.
Technically, Durante can face court-martial proceedings for violating certain provisions of the military’s Articles of War, like insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
Durante has been holding off details of the inoculation after it was accidentally revealed by President Rodrigo Duterte in a meeting with infectious diseases experts after Christmas, when he innocently asked the food and drug regulatory agency chief about Sinopharma.
He then spilled the beans that some of his officials and soldiers had taken the shots, taking Eric Domingo by surprise because he did not approve any emergency use authorization of any vaccine even if Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca were already authorized in Western countries.
In fact, Domingo told the president the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had heard about the existence of a black market for Chinese vaccines but did not find a dose nor make an arrest over the importion, distribution, sale and use of the unregistered shots.
In later statements, Domingo said Sinopharma had yet to submit any application for Phase 3 clinical trials in the country and for emergency use authorization.
Duterte may have personal knowledge of the inoculation program for the PSG but he apparently did not take action to stop what clearly was an illegal activity, or have the vaccination of soldiers investigated.
He also clearly violated the law, an impeachable offense for betraying the public trust.
But who will dare file an impeachment complaint against a populist leader who has full control over the two houses of Congress?
Who will run after officials and soldiers who have vowed to protect the president even if they commit a crime?
The PSG has a noble intention to protect Duterte from the highly virulent coronavirus, with soldiers around him taking the risks with an unregistered vaccine.
But it was a big mistake to take the gamble. Durante, as the commander, made poor tactical judgment, sending his troops to a very risky operation just to fulfill the unit’s mission.
Durante has been withholding vital information from the public, giving stupid, illogical and unbelievable statements, such as claiming the PSG troops administered the vaccines among themselves and denying any knowledge on who supplied them with the vaccines.
But he may be forced to tell the truth when he faces a Senate investigation on the issue later this month.
Like a true soldier, Durante is willing to take the fall to save his boss or sacrifice his own men when the lawmakers and the public clamor for accountability for the violation the government’s vaccine rollout roadmap.
All officials have taken the extra effort to clear the president of any wrongdoing.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte was unaware, as Durante said he did not ask the president’s permission.
Even the FDA seemed to agree the president had no part in the actual administration of the vaccine.
But the more officials around the president explained, the deeper the hole they dug for the president because all executive decisions and actions emanate from him.
Besides, it was a known fact that Duterte had close ties with Chinese leaders and had some advisers with close links to Beijing.
The commanding general of the Philippine Army, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, a very respected soldier who was awarded the highest military medal for gallantry in action, the Medal of Valor, was the first general to confirm the vaccination.
He said the military follows a chain-of-command and the president sits at the top of this structure; thus the order to have soldiers immunized with an unregulated vaccine must have come from the commander-in-chief.
Now, who will dare challenge the decision to inoculate the soldiers?
The president may have taken the shots, too, as a show of solidarity to his troops.
Who will be blamed if there will be side effects and if the country’s vaccination plan will fail as every Dick, Tom and Harry will get the shots whether authorized or unauthorized, to preserve their own lives from the virus?
There is already a thriving black market and as the government looks for money to procure the vaccines, people who can afford to go to the black market will also risk their lives to buy a dose.
Let’s hope the mad frenzy to secure a vaccine will not lead to chaos and a total failure of the government’s pandemic response in the months ahead, when the doses are commercially available in the market.