THE original proposal for Covid-19 vaccinations was a good one but concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine have elicited a wrong response from the government, leading to a system that enabled jumping a queue that already exists.

The AstraZeneca vaccination system needs to be scrapped after its first roll-out and amalgamated into the existing one, especially since it was reported that Malaysia is soon to receive a million more doses of AstraZeneca under the Covax facility, which enables countries to get vaccines. It would be a major disaster if this is done through the alternative booking process because it seriously compromises the earlier queuing system.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who is responsible for the coordination of vaccinations, erred when he allowed a parallel system of vaccination, which is unfair because it bypasses a system already in place which prioritises vaccinations according to need.

This system was implemented because of concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine and its side effects, including blood clotting, which are very miniscule and affect only a tiny proportion of those affected, apparently just four in one million.

When millions of vaccinations are given, some people are bound to get side effects, even serious ones, but if detected early they can be treated. The overall medical opinion is that the AstraZeneca vaccine still helps reduce the chances of contracting Covid-19, even when weighed against its risks.

But for some reason, the Malaysian government decided to give a choice, and was inordinately concerned about human rights when this literally involves a matter of life and death.

It should have made the brave, but perhaps unpopular decision, to go ahead with one vaccination queue. When elections may be around the corner, no politician will make a potentially unpopular decision even if it is good for the public.

But instead, it opened up a free-for-all by opening a new queue for AstraZeneca on a first-come first-served basis and allowing people to book online from 12pm on May 2 for 268,600 shots. Predictably, the spots were all taken up in four hours.

Think about that for a second. Many people who are not in the priority list of susceptible people were scheduled for jabs through an online fest, despite an existing queue that prioritised vaccinations based on needs.

When millions of vaccinations are given, some people are bound to get side effects, even serious ones, but if detected early they can be treated. – SAIRIEN NAFIS/The Vibes pic, May 13, 2021
When millions of vaccinations are given, some people are bound to get side effects, even serious ones, but if detected early they can be treated. – SAIRIEN NAFIS/The Vibes pic, May 13, 2021

There are over nine million people in Malaysia who have registered for their vaccines, but suddenly over a quarter of a million people are ahead of them through this foolish opening-up of a new queue through online registration.

Is it so difficult to keep to one queue? No, not if you think through the process. First put everyone in the same queue – no online scramble for vaccines. Then perhaps, if it is justified, put older people on AstraZeneca if warranted as studies indicate people over 50 are less prone to complications.

If anyone does not want to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, he moves down to the bottom of the queue and is listed on the MySejahtera app as having declined a vaccination, and is therefore ineligible to enter public areas until he gets vaccinated.

That will be a strong negative incentive to stay on the queue and get vaccinated when your turn comes and for all Malaysians to do their little part in protecting themselves, and more importantly, others in the fight against Covid-19.

This is no time to be dithering about freedom (rare in our country in many areas under the best of circumstances), but to ensure that a substantial mass of people of at least 70% are vaccinated as soon as possible so as to stop this dangerous pandemic in its tracks.

Those who refuse to be vaccinated without good medical grounds should simply not be permitted to be in public until the pandemic is brought under control. This is not as draconian as it sounds – many vaccinations are already compulsory and there is every reason for Covid-19 vaccines to be made so too.

What is important is to maintain public confidence in the system and that there are no exceptions to the rule and that there is no favouritism whatsoever. Everybody takes their due turn.

You cannot have some people becoming frontliners all of a sudden. If you are an ex-serviceman or ex-policeman, you are not a frontliner, although we appreciate your previous services. But according to some accounts, they are being prioritised. If this is done, the system becomes open to abuse.

This was most clearly illustrated by vaccines given to over 3,000 hotel workers in Pahang, including Genting Highlands hotel workers, which was apparently against federal orders. Khairy said he did not issue the orders. Measures must be put in place so that the existing queueing system cannot be gamed.

The recent postponement of the appointments of some 2,800 of those registered for AstraZeneca vaccines does not engender confidence and raises questions as to whether some people are being given preference.

With more AstraZeneca vaccines soon to be available, it is necessary to get rid of the parallel queue which jumps over the previous one and put all vaccinations on one single track so that nobody overtakes another via a lane that should not have been there in the first place. – The Vibes, May 13, 2021

P. Gunasegaram maintains that decisions such as these must be made and implemented by professionals, not conflicted, confounding, confusing politicians. He is executive director of research and advocacy group Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes