As Malaysia is battling the fourth wave of COVID-19, news of COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations and death rates has been plaguing the front page of our newspapers. Despite a slow start, our country’s vaccination rate has seen a dramatic ramp-up in the past few months. Malaysia is on the path of inoculating millions of people who have registered with the contact tracing app MySejahtera, the vaccine access committee’s website or respective health clinics or offices.
As of 23 August 2021, at least 31.28 million doses of vaccines have been administered; bringing a total of 55.79% of the nation’s population vaccinated. In the race to achieving herd immunity, Malaysia has been consistently administering as many as 500,00 vaccine doses a day.
RM5.8 billion was allocated to carry out the immunisation programme, which has enough doses to cover 130% of Malaysia’s population. Despite the impressive digits, Malaysia has yet to overcome the vaccination disparities between states. Though Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Negeri Sembilan and Putrajaya have at least 50% of the adult population partially vaccinated, Sabah only has 36.9%, while Kelantan’s numbers are at 34.8%.
Factors Behind Low Vaccination Rates
When Malaysia first received its first batch of vaccines in late February 2021, its National COVID-19 Immunisation Program (NCIP) was gaining steam. NCIP is divided into phases, with the first focus on immunising the country’s health and security workers. Several efforts from the government, NGO’s and even local celebrities have been encouraging Malaysians to be vaccinated, but at the same time, anti-vaccination messages were spreading.
In the East Coast state of Kelantan, nearly 10,000 elderly people aged 60 and above failed to attend their vaccine appointments earlier in May 2021. It is believed that the ‘wait and see’ attitude has been adopted amongst the community. Even before the pandemic, the “anti-vaxx” movement and vaccine hesitancy was a concern. Vaccine hesitancy can be observed in a variety of contexts, across ages, ethnic and racial groups, educational levels and political affiliations.
I do not think that vaccine hesitancy presents a clear baseline pattern of distribution, perhaps except slightly more obvious for some religious groups in parts of the north and east coast of Peninsular Malaysia on the claim of vaccines’ halal-ness. – Dr. Lim Chee Han, health researcher
While in East Malaysia, Sabah’s low vaccine registration numbers were infrastructure and accessibility issues to rural areas. As of July 10, 2021, urban districts such as Putatan (80.4%), Penampang (73.7%) and Kota Kinabalu (46.1%) had relatively high registration rates compared to rural districts like Nabawan (12.1%), Kinabatangan (10.5%) and Tongod (9.8%).
Being a big state and having residents in far-flung locations, other variables that could have impacted the vaccination rate in Sabah include accessible vaccine stock and uninterrupted delivery of supplies from the peninsula.
In addition to this, Sabah’s rural areas tend to have weak broadband coverage. The limited Internet coverage resulted in people needing to manually register for the vaccination program on pen and paper. This posed the challenge of mobilising multiple healthcare teams, navigating challenging terrain on roads and rivers to reach remote villages.
Further down south on the Peninsular, Johor’s royalty, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar expressed his disappointment at the slow rate of vaccinations in his home state, the fourth slowest nationwide with just 37.4% of adults fully vaccinated as of August 22. What’s worse is that with schools planning to reopen in October, as many as 779 teachers have declined to be vaccinated. Considering Johor as one of the most developed states in Malaysia, the shortage and slow rate of vaccine rollout remains a mystery.
Happenings At Ground Level
In July 2021, Kelantan made efforts for outreach programmes organised throughout the state. This resulted in more than 37,000 people receiving their first jab. Local authorities and community leaders collaborated to host the inoculation programme. Outreach programmes were also held in mosques, where the two-day programme was organised by Kota Baru district health office and the village community. In other efforts, the Kelantan Health Department also set up a designated hotline to assist senior citizens aged 60 and above to register for the vaccine programme.
For Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar had to take matters into his own hands and made an appeal to ramp up vaccination for the safety of his people. For the 779 teachers who refused the vaccine, Johor Education, Information, Heritage and Culture chairman Mazlan Bujang will provide counselling to the teachers who rejected the vaccine.
We want the affected teachers to understand the vaccine’s importance, especially as the school session is expected to start in October. – Mazlan Bujang
Since the end of July, Sabah’s daily number of cases has mostly remained in four figures. As of August 21, only 50.9% have registered for the vaccine. However, Sabah is still confident to have 60% of its population vaccinated by the end of October. To combat the rising cases, Sabah’s State Minister of Housing and Local Government announced that the state will be receiving a total of 747,980 doses, and another 308,990 doses are scheduled to arrive in the coming days.
In July, Sabah also opened the state’s first integrated vaccine administering centre (PPV) in Kota Kinabalu, in hopes of increasing the vaccination rate. As for Sabahans in rural areas, vaccination outreach programmes have received overwhelming responses from residents in Kampung Tudan, located 120km from Kota Kinabalu. 300 vaccine doses brought by the Covid-19 Immunisation Task Force were administered in less than five hours.
The Looming Silver Lining
Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah confirmed that Malaysia will begin vaccinating teenagers in mid-September. This will involve teens aged 12 to 15 years of age with underlying health issues, and those aged 16 to 17 with or without health issues. Though there have been mixed responses from the public regarding inoculating adolescents, health professionals believe that it is necessary before returning to school in October.
Children over the age of 12 should be vaccinated. In my opinion, the benefits of the vaccine for this group outweigh its risks. – Dr Malina Osman, Epidemiologist, Universiti Putra
The then caretaker Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was confident that Malaysia will achieve herd immunity by the end of October if the immunisation program resumes uninterrupted. He also mentioned that the objectives outlined in the National Recovery Plan (NRP) have to be implemented and that certain sectors have to be reopened in order for the country’s economy to recover rapidly, so the rakyat will be able to earn a living.
The newly appointed Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the government has purchased an additional six million COVID-19 vaccine doses. It is scheduled to arrive in early September.
Malaysia still has some way to go and getting as many people inoculated is perhaps the only sure way of coming out of this pandemic.
This article was written by Rachel Tan and edited by the Wiki Impact team.
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