TWO things demand an explanation from the authorities in terms of their Covid-19 handling.

First is the extremely slow vaccination roll-out compared with the rest of the world. Second is them allowing a greater possibility for people to closely mingle, even as cases increase and the infectivity rate (R) reaches alarming proportions.

While Kelantan closed Ramadan bazaars following an increase in cases, other areas have allowed them to operate with little to no enforcement of social distancing. This raises justifiable fears of higher infection numbers in the next week or so, when the mingling will manifest itself after the virus’ incubation period of an average of five to six days, and up to two weeks.

The one thing that is likely to stop Covid-19 in its tracks and bring life back to normal – vaccination – seems to be taking an inordinately long time, with Malaysia languishing at the bottom in terms of immunisation rate.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has placed the blame for the delay squarely on developed countries, which he says have cornered the market for vaccines and acquired more jabs than necessary.

However, that explanation is inadequate. Other countries with means and incomes lower than ours have received supplies, and are vaccinating at a rate far higher than Malaysia. In fact, we seriously lag behind both the world and Asian averages in terms of the number of people receiving a dose per 100 population, as the chart below shows.

It shows the share of the total population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine. This may not equal the share that is fully vaccinated if the vaccine requires two doses. If a person receives the first of a two-dose jab, this metric goes up by 1. If they receive the second dose, the metric stays the same.

This set of data indicates that Malaysia is far below the world average of 6.3% and Asian average of 3.5%, with a figure of 2.1%. Yes, the Philippines and Thailand are behind us, but they are not necessarily the countries with which we should be comparing ourselves.

Also, nations such as South Korea, Japan and New Zealand appear to be doing worse than us, but their Covid-19 caseloads have been kept low thanks to severe lockdowns and strict standard operating procedures. Malaysia, meanwhile, is experiencing a surge in infections.

What Khairy needs to do is give a complete explanation on why our vaccination rate is low, and what we are doing to get it up. He should dispel any suspicion that some groups are being favoured when it comes to access to vaccines and their purchase for government supplies.

This can be done only with a complete disclosure of where and through whom vaccines are being bought, and at what price. Right now, the rate of vaccinations cannot be increased because we lack jabs. How did we get into this situation, and when will it be resolved?

The other worrisome thing is the infectivity rate. This represents how many people a person who is already infected will infect. If R is above 1, the number of cases increases. If it is below 1, the number decreases.

Malaysia – number of new infections, relation to R

Source: Health Ministry
Source: Health Ministry

The graph shows a dire situation. As R started moving down from 1.2 to 0.8, the number of new infections fell sharply. But as conditions started to be relaxed, there was a rapid increase in cases, surpassing even the forecast figures (in red).

Kelantan on Sunday recorded the highest Covid-19 infectivity rate in the country at 1.32, compared with the national rate – which was already high – of 1.19. In the absence of any sign of a decline in R, we can expect new cases to increase exponentially, especially with Ramadan bazaars in full swing.

Anyone who has been to one of these will know that the conditions are far from ideal, and any semblance of social distancing is abandoned. There seems to be no will anymore on the part of the public to practise social distancing, and on the part of the authorities, to enforce the rule.

This is a dangerous point of inflection, as can be seen from the chart that shows huge increases in case numbers and indicates that they will continue to accelerate unless measures are taken immediately to control the situation, including banning bazaars.

The thing is, having 70% of the population vaccinated, the point at which researchers believe there will be some semblance of herd immunity, is still a way off, and the effort may extend well into next year. The pandemic could do a lot more damage.

Recall that the United States and United Kingdom, which were slow to impose control measures, saw a major rise in cases in the first few months of the pandemic, and paid the price in terms of infections and deaths. But now, they have their act together when it comes to vaccination. As vaccines reach more people, infections trend down.

We did very well initially when we imposed strict measures to control the coronavirus, bringing daily infections down to the single digits, only to see the progress go to waste when the government foolishly relaxed conditions for the Sabah polls last September to overthrow the then state government.

This is clearly shown in the chart. The Sabah election sparked a rise in infections, culminating in a spike in cases in the glove sector, dominated by Top Glove. It took new control measures to bring the cases down, and now, they are increasing again, alarmingly.

With neither vaccinations to provide herd immunity nor control measures to reduce the infectivity rate, it looks like the government has indeed lost control of the fight against Covid 19, and we, the people, may have to pay the price.

There is a terribly urgent need to increase the vaccination rate. While this is being done, controls must be reimposed. It is a time for tough decisions, and one can only hope that this backdoor government will put politicking on the back-burner, and prioritise the last big battle against Covid-19 and minimise the damage.

To simply wait for vaccination to take its course and stop the pandemic may result in far too many casualties. – The Vibes, April 20, 2021

P. Gunasegaram says the fluctuating fortunes of the war on Covid-19 are yet another indictment against the inefficient, illegitimate government that relies on a needless emergency to stay in power. He is executive director of advocacy organisation Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes