Cover Story, Weekly Highlights

“On The Eve of The National COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-Out…”

The arrival of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has brought with it a glimmer of hope to the Malaysian public in the ongoing fight against this pandemic.

For the record, on the eve of the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government on 24 February 2020, never did we ever imagined that our cumulative cases will be fast approaching 300,000, with a death toll of over a thousand and an alarming number of brought-in-dead (BID) COVID-19 victims.

The National Vaccination Plan that prioritises the front-liners as the first recipients of the vaccines is certainly the right step forward.

In addition, teachers especially those in the at risk groups who will start their teaching responsibilities soon in primary schools as well as those living in nursing and elderly care homes should also be in the first group of those to receive the vaccine.

Be that as it may, there are however pertinent issues that need to be immediately addressed in the vaccination rollout by both the government and relevant stakeholders.

Firstly, the government must surely, by now, appreciate the impact of risk communications. This basic domain of public health plays a critical role in any public health crisis as it allows the public to understand the policies and operations of the government.

Contradicting statements, to cite an example, of the administration of daily vaccine doses by the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Minister of Health, gives the impression that the cabinet ministers have poor coordination and agreement on basic issues such as the number of vaccines administered daily.

Khairy previously said there was a target of 75,000 daily doses to be administered a day, whereas Dr Adham has said it would be 126,000 shots a day.

Besides providing fodder to vaccine hesitancy and ammunition to anti-vaccination groups, it would similarly impact negatively on foreign investors’ confidence in our government’s capabilities.

Investors are looking for clear signals of recovery and poor governing capabilities do not sit well with them.

Secondly, the policy of vaccination should by now be explicitly clear. When the Vaccine Coordinating Minister announced that everyone including foreign workers and migrants would be vaccinated, it was a great relief to many as it demonstrated the inclusivity of the government.

However, the unfortunate announcement, though later clarified and withdrawn, by the Health Director General that it would not be necessary to vaccinate foreign workers, took everyone by surprise.

We need a clarity of leadership whom we can trust to be the voice that speaks truthfully about our vaccines program.

The Ministers and the technocrats need to get their act together in order to inspire trust and build confidence among the rakyat.

Countries like Israel and the UAE are ahead by leaps and bounds in their mass vaccination campaigns, whilst we have only licensed one vaccine, and a few others are still pending Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

Thirdly, we need to remind our rakyat that the COVID-19 vaccine is not the end all and be all, and surely not the silver bullet that would end the pandemic miraculously.

We need clear leadership more than ever.

It is disconcerting that the government is parading the vaccine arrival as though it is the ‘saviour’ of our pandemic. This would inevitably create a false sense of security to the general public.

They must know that the vaccines are part and parcel of a holistic program to mitigate, contain and help us to exit the pandemic. The other components of the program, namely strict adherence to SOPs, masking, physical distancing, better coverage of testing and contact tracing and meticulous attention to the FTTIS are similarly Critical Success Factors (CSF).

The rakyat should be kept well informed of the efficacy, safety, high quality and permissibility of the vaccines. This would help to improve vaccine confidence and acceptance especially among the vaccine hesitant individuals.

Fourthly, we must always be realistic in detailing the vaccine rollout. We must not oversell the idea to the people that things will always be great and everything will go according to plan.

We must anticipate and plan for contingencies, and unforeseen circumstances as witnessed in our very recent experience. Despite the MCO and EO, we have failed to arrest the trajectory of the pandemic curve, let alone flatten the curve.

The third wave has been marred with poor adherence to good science. The absence of an integrated real time digital application, failure to undertake effective contact tracing, blind adherence to a flawed one-size-fits-all testing regimen, the selective lowering of the quarantine period for ministers and the bubble program with a neighbouring country exemplifies these failures.

The vaccine cannot be expected to compensate and cover for the failures of these basic Public Health responses. These areas must be put right if we want to enjoy the optimal power of the vaccine rollout.

Media Statement by the Pakatan Harapan COVID-19 & Vaccination Task Force on the 23rd of February 2021

YB Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad – Chair (Kuala Selangor)

YB Dr Lee Boon Chye (Gopeng),

YB Dr Kelvin Yii (Bandar Kuching),

YB Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli (Lumut),

YB Sim Tze Tzin (Bayan Baru),

YB Dr Ong Kian Ming (Bangi),

YB Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud (Exco Kesihatan Selangor),

YB Dr Norlela Ariffin (Exco Kesihatan Pulau Pinang),

YB Veerapan Supramaniam (Exco Kesihatan Negeri Sembilan)

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