Contradictheory: Do you trust the government?

Canadian health authorities said April 17, 2021, that they recorded a second case of rare blood clotting linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine but still recommend the shot for use. Conspiracy theorists, however, are flooding social media with doubts about not only this vaccine but others as well. - AFP

I anticipate what's left of this month of April will be a trying one. A time when patience will be tested, perhaps to the limit for some. When we must remember the importance of respecting our elders – even though they may be quite stubborn sometimes.

Yes, it’s time to check if your senior relatives have registered for the Covid-19 vaccination yet.

In between the WhatsApp messages reminding us to do good in this month of Ramadan comes a flurry of questions about which vaccine is better. And will they give you blood clots?

Let me answer that quickly: A vaccine with an efficacy of 50% means the number of infections are reduced by 50%, which is still a very good thing; and the occurrence of blood clots in people given the AstraZeneca vaccine is one in 250,000 – that is, 0.0004%, which is an incredibly small number.

Nevertheless, to allay fears, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the government will reassess the AstraZeneca vaccine and make a decision about its use in the coming week (ie, week beginning April 19, 2021).

For me, it comes down to a simple thing: trust. Yes, you can learn all you want about the various vaccines, and you can pull up the various tables that show you what the differences are among them. But at the end of the day, if the government, the director-general of Health, the Science, Technology and Innovation minister, and the overwhelming majority of healthcare professionals in Malaysia all say the vaccine is safe to take, but you are still hesitant... it’s probably because you doubt what they’re all saying.

I’ve written before about the attitudes against vaccination in Malaysia and elsewhere around the world (“Vaccination doubters are killing children”). I believe what I said then still holds up now: That people who choose not to vaccinate also believe in other conspiracies by various authorities – including, for the purposes of this article, the government.

Indeed, a study published in Nature magazine in October 2020 unsurprisingly concluded that there is a correlation between willingness to take a vaccine and trust in information from government sources. The study did not include results from Malaysia, but when the researchers surveyed our neighbours in Singapore, they found only 67.94% of respondents agreed with the statement, “If a Covid-19 vaccine is proven safe and effective and is available, I will take it”.

Another study by Lincoln University College in Malaysia published at the same time, asked, “If there is an approved vaccine to prevent Covid-19 tested on animals but yet to be tested on humans, would you accept it for yourself or your family members?” Only 43.1% answered “Yes” (although it may not be representative of the whole country since invitations to participate were via “e-mails, WhatsApp and Facebook and other social media”).

These numbers are on the low side given the government’s target to have 80% of the country inoculated to achieve herd immunity. As at April 12, just over 8.6 million Malaysians have signed up, about 35.5% of the target population of adults.

The blame for a lot of this doubt should be placed squarely on messages being spread on social media. Most recently, a meme was shared by a prominent VIP that showed a mouse suggesting he would only get the vaccine after it has been tested on humans. (The irony, of course, being that the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Sinovac vaccines have actually had animal trials.) Should we ban such messages on the Internet?

The thing is, it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say you should trust the government when it comes to vaccines but that it’s also OK to err on the side of caution when it comes to sending children to school, despite the fact the government has said it was OK to reopen them.

Naturally, parents are mindful that there are risks. This was starkly illustrated earlier this week when a school was initially instructed to remain open despite six pupils having been found to be Covid-19-positive (“Parents express concern over outbreak in PJ school”).

Most interestingly, it was reported that the headmistress had applied to the Health Ministry to temporarily close the school but this was rejected at first. Eventually, the school was closed soon after it made the news.

I think it may have surprised some that the school couldn’t decide on its own to close. But according to the Education Minister, if a Covid-19 case is detected in a school, a risk assessment will be carried out by the district health office, and it is that office which will advise whether only some classes, certain floors or buildings or the entire school should be closed. Until then, parents are presumably left in the dark. Is following this process the best way to make sure students and their families are kept safe? I personally would prefer more transparency rather than additional layers of reporting and bureaucracy.

It may be, of course, that the powers-that-be believe that the risk of infection in schools is relatively low. Between Jan 1 and April 11, 2021, there have been at least 36 Covid-19 clusters in the education sector (including in institutions of higher learning as well as pre-schools). In fact, that number may be as high as 55, as it’s a little difficult to correlate the different sources of data. Given that there are about 17,000 such institutions in Malaysia, the probability of an education sector cluster appearing is about 0.3% – or about 800 times the likelihood of getting a blood clot from the AstraZeneca vaccine.

It has long been my belief that transparency is important when debating public policy – both the good and the bad. Fortunately, the occurrence of clots related to the vaccine was not hidden – imagine the outcry if the public believed the government was trying to hide something. But apart from asking if the public trusts the government enough, we should also be asking, does the government trust us?

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Covid-19 , anti-vaxxers , vaccines


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