ONLY a simultaneous, two-pronged approach will solve escalating problems with Covid-19 – movement controls and standard operating procedures to stop the spread, and rapid vaccination for 80% of the population to achieve herd immunity and reduce the impact of the disease.

A lockdown, which should have been imposed perhaps two months ago, has been enforced late in the day, mainly because infections have spiralled out of control. This reflects a welcome realisation of the seriousness of the situation.

We have previously had lockdowns and controls, and provided that professionals are allowed to run the process, one can be confident that the escalating infections will be brought down in two weeks. Whether the lockdown is extended can be decided later.

We need to move on our vaccine roll-out, which is still painfully slow. We made a bad start here and need to improve quickly.

Perhaps, the most important, but under-reported, part of a recent Astro Awani interview with former attorney-general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas was what he said following a question on whether it is difficult to lift the emergency.

“A lot of discussion today is misplaced. Today, people are fighting for their lives. There are hundreds of people in ICUs, in hospitals, 6,000 to 7,000 (Covid-19) cases a day, 50 to 60 deaths a day (which have since increased to around 100).

“That has transformed the situation substantially. To me, the focus is, the critical question is, why have we not received sufficient vaccines? I will answer my own question.

“By February, March (2020), we were already discussing Covid-19, the (then) health minister Dr Dzulkefly (Ahmad), myself, and (then prime minister) Tun (Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad), we knew about the problem, but it was just starting.

“What I would have said if we were still in power… ‘look, the only solution is vaccines’. Common sense would tell you (the) vaccine is the solution.

“So, we must authorise me, the AG as the lawyer for the government, and a few others, to go and start having contracts with all the companies of this world to get the vaccines, so that when the vaccines were out – they were out by December last year – we would be the first in line.

“To me, the US, the UK, Israel are three examples that vaccines have really helped solve the problem. We are far behind as it is.”

That about summarises our first failure in terms of the vaccine roll-out – we did not do enough to secure vaccines early enough. With all the politicking at that time, when the new government was trying to stay in power, not much thought was put into controlling Covid-19.

In the early days, the new government had the good sense to heed the warnings of professionals such as Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, and courageously imposed a lockdown last March to beat back the pandemic. Credit to them.

When political interference happened – the Sabah election, lack of firmness in dealing with factory clusters (excuse: the economy will be affected), premature withdrawal of restrictions ahead of Hari Raya, etc – the situation worsened rapidly, necessitating the overdue lockdown.

The problem of supplies was not addressed systematically. It would have been easy, as Thomas outlined, to establish just one buyer for the entire country. Once that’s done, when vaccine supplies are obtained, distribute them using existing systems and allow vaccinations to take place without any charge, but directly paying those administering vaccines a small amount, via the entire medical system.

By all means, supplement the system with additional vaccination centres and have an online system to monitor all vaccinations.

It’s a bit late in the day, but the existing systems can still be tweaked to hasten the roll-out. The figures are poor. As of May 29, according to Our World in Data, some three million vaccines had been administered in Malaysia.

Only 1.09 million people have received both doses. To reach 80% immunisation would require some 26 million to be vaccinated – but only about 11 million have registered for the jab. Vaccinations need to be ramped up.

First, after the current exercise for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was opened to all, put all vaccines in one online queue. In addition to mass vaccination centres, all hospitals and clinics, both public and private, should be mobilised for vaccinations, as this article suggests. It looks like the private sector is more than willing to oblige.

It may be too late for other changes – for instance, Pharmaniaga’s role in procuring and distributing some vaccines – but at least ensure that these are efficiently done, and the margins that they make are reasonable. Allow employers to pay for foreign workers’ vaccinations, but charge nominal amounts.

And, just ensure everybody waits their turn. There are too many stories of queue-jumping and connected people getting vaccines for them, their families and their entire households, including drivers, maids and other household help. This is no time for corruption, favouritism and inefficiency to take root.

If it had been there before, please, put a stop to this abominable practice. It is to be noted that there has been no proper explanation advanced for the vaccination of thousands of hotel employees in Pahang, including those working in Genting Highlands.

Let’s now be focused on rolling out vaccines as quickly – and as fairly – as possible. It can still make a difference – to millions of people who have yet to get vaccinated. – The Vibes, June 1, 2021

P. Gunasegaram says when lives are affected, so will the economy – eventually. He is executive director of advocacy and research organisation Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes