Opinion: To encourage vaccines, offer a carrot while waving a stick

Opinion: To encourage vaccines, offer a carrot while waving a stick

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia needs to be ready to dish out some tough love.

As the Delta variant rips through non-pharmaceutical preventive measures and pushes herd immunity almost out of reach in all countries, it is time to stop coddling the anti-vaccine crowd.

On Aug 3, the Infectious Diseases Society of America estimated the threshold for herd immunity to be 90 percent of the population instead of the previous 60 to 70 percent because of the Delta strain.

Before that, the Washington Post had reported on July 30 that the Centers for Disease Control declared the “war has changed” as the strain seems to cause more severe illness and is more infectious than the common cold.

First detected in India, the Delta variant has spread to 132 countries, including Malaysia. It is able to infect some fully vaccinated people, although the unvaccinated continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic. And once infected, fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus as easily as the unvaccinated.

It is news that many people, tired of living and suffering under pandemic conditions, do not want to hear.

Specifically, what does it mean for Malaysia?

Instead of the targeted 80 percent, Malaysia should start aiming to vaccinate as close to 90 percent of the population. And if it means mandating vaccines, so be it.

Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam, virologist at the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Monash University Malaysia, said the rate of vaccinations needed to increase as much as possible.

“We have to vaccinate people at warp speed, crazy speed. The vaccine remains the ultimate shield we have to reduce the impact of Delta,” he said, adding that the variant has made vaccine mandates “inevitable”.

Although the Delta strain could also infect the fully vaccinated, the numbers are much lower than the unvaccinated. And if everyone within the area is vaccinated, the likelihood of infection drops even lower.

While public health and economic experts agree there should be a policy in place to ensure all are vaccinated, their views on when and how it should happen differ.

Public Health Physicians Association of Malaysia president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar said mandatory vaccination is not required at the moment as the vaccination process was going smoothly and demand still outstripped supply.

“But after that, when the graph plateaus, we can start mandatory vaccinations,” he said.

Despite having one of the fastest rates of vaccination in the world, Malaysia is not ahead in the vaccination game as much as it would like to be, compared to countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. About 50 percent of Malaysia’s population is expected to be fully vaccinated by the end of this month, according to estimates by the Covid-19 Immunisation Task Force or CITF.

The Klang Valley, the economic hub and population centre of the country, is ahead with 100 percent of adults registered with MySejahtera expected to be fully vaccinated by September. But that figure translates to about 70 percent of the population in the area, which will not be enough to stem Delta.

As of Aug 4, 87.1 percent of the targeted 24.2 million have registered for vaccines nationwide. Based on previous studies on Malaysians’ attitude regarding Covid-19 vaccines which found that some 83.3 to 94.3 percent of them were receptive to the vaccine, Malaysia could soon hit the wall in registrations.

Authorities fear making vaccine registration compulsory at this point in time would scare off the willing but vaccine-skittish. For now, the government has indicated they prefer to dangle the proverbial carrot in front of the masses to convince them to vaccinate. In other words, giving them a local vaccine passport that grants them greater freedom to go out.

On July 28 at Parliament, Coordinating Minister for the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar said the government had no current plans to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory.

“What we hope will increase the number of registrations is the freedom or privileges given to those who are fully vaccinated,” he said.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had previously said that dining in restaurants, interstate travel and sporting activities were among the privileges that the government was considering extending to those who have received two full doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

But based on other countries’ experience, giving perks to the vaccinated has not really succeeded in convincing more people to get themselves vaccinated. Dangling a carrot while carrying a big stick, however, is a different matter.

In New York City, the New York Post reported that vaccinations increased 40 percent after mayor Bill Blassio mandated vaccinations for city employees or face weekly testing, and gave out US$100 gift cards to those who got the shot.

Unlike in the United States, employers in Malaysia cannot require employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994.

But Malaysian Employers Federation president Datuk Dr Syed Hussain Syed Husman said in a statement that employers could make vaccination a provision for hiring new employees.

He said employers also could bar existing employees from entering the work premises if they refuse to be vaccinated without good reason or until the pandemic was over.

“Without vaccination, employees will not be allowed to report for duty and will be on unpaid leave until such time that Malaysia is free from Covid-19,” he said.

Experts say vaccines should be mandatory in certain sectors that deal with the public, such as healthcare, tourism, manufacturing, education and retail.

Some of the incentives they suggested include giving the employees extra days off and a small bonus.

In the end, said Dr Syed Hussain, ensuring a safe environment for the workers and clients is in the best interest of everybody.

“Employees must understand vaccination is not only about the workplace. Employees need to be vaccinated to protect themselves, their colleagues and their clients,” he added. -Bernama