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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Of vaccine euphoria, complacency and pandemic fatigue

 

Many people think that we are at a crossroad, on whether we will fare better or worse after Hari Raya Aidilfitri in terms of numbers of new infections and the subsequent burden from Covid-19-related stresses on our social and economic landscape.

I consider that we have “missed the bus”. We lost the opportunity to quell the previous wave and things are, unfortunately, only going to get a lot worse over the next few months.

We can continue to rant and rave at the government, the health ministry and other institutions, and sure there’s enough blame to go around for everyone, but in reality, this is a failure of the Malaysian social fabric at large.

The “we” has long gone out of this intricate societal web holding us together and it’s now the “I” that has come to the forefront, with devastating consequences unfolding in front of us by the very minute.

Most of us think they are clear about the answer to the question “why has this happened”? However, the answer is much more complex than we may think; controlling the disease outbreaks is as rooted deeply in the behavioural changes required as much as it is about increasing testing, or buying more ventilators and opening ICU beds.

There are three large interconnected concepts underpinning current societal behaviour that we need to be aware of and understand, so that we can think of enacting these changes from within.

Vaccine euphoria

This term refers to the phenomenon which happens when certain groups of people are ecstatic about the fact that vaccines are being deployed and that they can see the “light at the end of the tunnel”. This causes them to be much more casual and relaxed about other public health mitigation measures such as wearing masks, and practising social distancing and hand hygiene.

Case in point: Last week, I had to field three different interviews from different media on why we could not emulate the new US guidelines which allow fully vaccinated individuals to go out in public without wearing masks. The question was about whether Malaysia could allow such a relaxation of the rules. The answer is No, of course, but more importantly to me this reflected the “relaxed” mindset prevalent in quite a large segment of society.

Even more interesting is the feeling that many of those who are caught up in the vaccine euphoria are not those who have been vaccinated, since those vaccinated are largely healthcare workers, but those who have simply opted to take things “easy” out of over-optimism. Truth be told, the road to complete vaccination and reaching herd immunity for all Malaysians is a long and tough one, and may require up to the greater part of next year to achieve.

Vaccine complacency

The second concept that needs to be highlighted here is that of Covid-19 disease complacency. There are still quite a few Malaysians who have the preposterous idea that Covid-19 is not a serious disease (some even continue to believe that it is not a real disease, but a conspiracy by the Jews, Big Pharma or Bill Gates, take your pick). For these individuals, there are hard perceptions that vaccination is unnecessary and might even be dangerous for them.

This does not necessarily include the group of anti-vaxxers or the peddlers of pseudoscience and misinformation, but really just the average Ali, Ah Chong or Arumugam who is confused and befuddled by the information deluge thrown at them. Within these groups of Malaysians are those who follow the regulations as long as they are policed. The moment they think they can get away with it, they will flout any and every public health mitigation measure against the pandemic. It’s simple for them – the Covid-19 narrative is entirely a false one, so why should they not be allowed to go about their daily lives as usual?

Pandemic fatigue

This is the state many of us are in right now: worn out by the different precautions and restrictions put in place, and the resulting mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and stress lead to us to abandoning these precautions altogether.

Pandemic fatigue is most worrying because it occurs within those who had previously been aware, vigilant and observant of precautions and restrictions but have become fed-up. Of course, in our country this has been fuelled further by the inherent differences in terms of enforcement between the “normal citizens” and those termed as “celestial beings”. This “don’t care any more lah” attitude is really one of the important things that we need to address together as we move forward into what is another series of lockdowns as things get worse.

As much as we exhort the authorities to get their act together (and I am quite sure that it is visible on how many others in the mainstream and social media who are calling for this), we too have an important role to play. And that is to get cracking back into the vigilant behaviour.

I agree that schools need to be closed temporarily and much stricter vigilant measures for risk-mitigation need to be put in place in industries; and other control measures need to be stepped up. But when hundreds if not thousands sneak back via the Karak highway to the East Coast despite travel restrictions, or crowds throng “mamak” restaurants as though there is no tomorrow, there really may be no tomorrow ahead.

Covid-19 still kills. We just seem to have forgotten. Amid the death toll which is now rising higher than ever, the message is simple. We’re not out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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