Manila, Philippines – Last week, after ignoring her brother’s advice for months, Fannie Taladro Pestaño hurried to a school campus near her home in Las Piñas City, a suburb of the Philippines’ capital Manila, to line up for her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Her brother, Johnny Rey Taladro, had been urging her to sign up for the immunisation drive.
It was free, and they needed the protection because, as menial labourers, they did not have the luxury of working from home.
“Think of your family,” he told her.
But Pestaño worried about side effects. She said she had heard news of people in other countries fainting, having a heart attack, and even dying after getting the jab. All her neighbours were talking about it.
So while she was aware of the immunisation campaign, she felt strongly against it, and not even her brother could convince her.
Then Las Piñas City’s congresswoman began a raffle offering huge prizes, but only for those who registered for COVID-19 vaccination.
“I heard a house-and-lot was at stake. I want that, of course,” Pestaño told Al Jazeera. She still feared the vaccine’s side effects, but she reassured herself by remembering her brother’s advice.
“Whatever happens, happens. It’s all up to God,” said Pestaño.
“We need it,” she said, referring to the house she now stands a chance of winning.
Vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos is a major concern in the country’s COVID-19 immunisation drive, already hampered by the slow arrival of vaccine shipments. Only 4 percent of the Philippines’ roughly 110 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of June 6, and only 1.4 percent have received a second dose.
In May, the local pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) found that only one-third of 1,200 Filipinos it surveyed were willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 even though the country is enduring one of the worst outbreaks in Southeast Asia. Another third were unwilling to be vaccinated, and a little more than a third were uncertain about it.
Mostly, people said they were concerned about the vaccines’ side effects, followed by doubts about the drugs’ efficacy, the survey showed. Social media posts discrediting vaccines are also a major cause of hesitation, according to the health department.
Congresswoman Villar, whose family owns one of the country’s largest property conglomerates, donated the prizes for Las Piñas’ raffles. The house-and-lot, estimated to be worth about one million pesos ($20,000), is a project of a company owned by her father, former senator Manny Villar.
Aside from boosting vaccination sign-ups, Villar said the raffle was designed to “spread awareness about the benefits of the COVID-19 immunisation programme of the national government”.
“A lot of Filipinos have reservations about getting vaccinated due, in part, to fears about the side effects, as a result of lack of proper knowledge and information about the benefits of vaccination,” she told Al Jazeera.
Every month starting from July, 10 immunised residents will win a livelihood starter package each worth more than $100, a small fortune for the extremely poor. The kits include food and other grocery items enough to start a hole-in-the-wall convenience store, a common household business in the country.
The house-and-lot will be given away in a grand draw in December, along with two motorcycles.
Las Piñas is not the only place trying to entice residents to get vaccinated. Local governments in cities and towns across the Philippines are resorting to raffles.
Mostly the prizes include sacks of rice – the country’s staple food – and bags of grocery items but in San Luis town in Pampanga province near Manila, the municipal government will raffle a cow every month for immunised residents. Worth about $628 each, the animals will be supplied by local donors.
“Winning a cow might not mean much in other places but here in San Luis, we’re agricultural, so it’s the ideal incentive,” Ardee Taruc, the town’s disaster mitigation officer, told Al Jazeera.
A cow can offer its owner a way out of extreme poverty. It feeds on grass that grows abundantly on the plain. With it, a farmer can start a herd, use it as a beast of burden and, if it is female, sell its milk.
“It’s up to the winners if they want to slaughter the cows,” said Taruc.
Filipinos’ confidence in vaccines took a severe hit in late 2017, when legislators investigated the government’s 2016 rollout of a vaccine against the mosquito-borne dengue virus.
State lawyers – not doctors – linked Sanofi-Pasteur’s Dengvaxia vaccine to a number of deaths in children who had been inoculated. Although the results of the investigation were inconclusive, the public’s vaccine confidence declined dramatically from 93 percent in 2015 to just 32 percent in 2018, according to The Vaccine Confidence Project.
Besides the Dengvaxia scare, the novelty of COVID-19 vaccines adds to the hesitation, said Lulu Bravo, a doctor and executive director of the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination.
“With the pandemic, we’re walking on uncharted territory. It’s actually fear of the unknown,” Bravo told Al Jazeera.
The Philippines’ priority list for COVID-19 immunisation includes medical workers, the elderly and people with co-morbidities – medical conditions that make them more susceptible to infection and severe disease.
Since the country only started public vaccination drives in the mid-1970s, many of the elderly grew up without having been immunised at all, which might also explain their reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Bravo added.
Education is a factor, too, she said.