As Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, vaccination is still our best defence


Vaccination is our best defence against Covid-19 – so Malaysian parents, note the May 15, 2022, deadline for vaccinating your children for free. Although rare, kids can suffer serious complications or get Type 1 diabetes after being infected by the virus. Why risk that? — AP

Is it over? The Covid-19 pandemic, I mean.

Can we breathe freely again after two years of a neverending nightmare? Can we really, in one fell swoop, scrap QR codes and quarantines, physical distancing and MySejahtera check-ins? Should any self-enforced isolation now end?

Well, yes and no. With an average of more than 1,000 new daily Covid-19 cases in Malaysia (and still millions globally) at the end of April 2022, the pandemic is certainly not “over”. But maybe the acute phase is.

As we keep hearing, Malaysia is moving to the “endemic phase”. But you know, endemicity is hardly cause to celebrate. Typhoid is endemic in Malaysia – is that good news? Ebola is endemic in parts of Africa; so is malaria, a major killer of children there. Outbreaks of endemic diseases can be dreadful.

Still, we’re in a better place than ever before in the pandemic. All of Malaysia’s Covid-19 numbers are now on a downward trend – the cases, the deaths, the hospitalisations. With 97.7% of adults vaccinated, and two-thirds of us boostered, the disease is no longer the same threat as it once was. Health officials are pretty sure that this “wall of immunity” will hold up, but are maintaining vigilance with a “heightened alert system”.

So we can, mostly, breathe easy now. Covid-19 is a concern but no longer a big showstopper. I know many people who were infected lately, and while some were uncomfortably sick, none – even the 80-year-olds – needed to go to hospital. That’s thanks to vaccines. Some cases are so mild or asymptomatic, they aren’t picked up (or reported).

It’s a different story if you’re unvaccinated – while the Omicron variant is less severe than Delta, this does not translate to low risk. For example, on March 14, the mortality rate among the unvaccinated was 30 times higher than among people vaccinated and boosted.

The immunocompromised or people with severe comorbidities also need to be careful. They have the option of another booster. And can mask up. But wear a proper mask – an N95, KN95, FFP2 or FFP3 all filter 94% or more of aerosols (an FFP3 is close to 100%). By comparison, a triple-layered cloth mask may only be 30% efficient. Any gaps render masks useless, of course.

Going forward, we should all not totally lower our guard – or throw away our masks. I’ll readily wear a mask in a crowded indoor spot. Why get Covid-19 if I can avoid it? (I’ve yet to get it). The risks are now lower but not zero – the disease can affect the lungs, heart and brain, and there’s Long Covid.

Look what happened after Britain scrapped all Covid-19 restrictions, including masks – there was a spike of infections, including repeat infections. I know of people in London who’ve had the disease three times. I see no sense in going down that path.

Every infection means more viral mutations, and thus more variants. We’ve seen new variants of concern every several months. Currently sub-variants of Omicron (such as BA2.12 in New York state or XE in Thailand) are causing concern. Could a new dangerous variant emerge? Yes. That’s very possible. But for it to become dominant, it would have to be even more transmissible than Omicron, which is already incredibly infectious.

In fact, it’s because Omicron is so omnipresent – and mild – that countries are relaxing restrictions.

Omicron is like the wind. You can’t stop the wind. That’s how renowned American epidemiologist Dr Michael Osterholm put it. Other variants were like forests fires, where it was possible to stop them somewhat. But not Omicron.

That’s why countries sticking to a zero-Covid-19 policy are now struggling. This isn’t the same Covid-19 of 2020 or 2021. China previously could keep the virus at bay, but its tough lockdowns are now looking more unsustainable. They’ve slowed the economy and caused much public anger, such as in Shanghai where there were food shortages and limited access to emergency and critical care such as dialysis.

In Hong Kong, the Omicron wave was catastrophic, resulting in one of the highest Covid-19 death rates seen worldwide. Senior citizens, mostly unvacci-nated, made up 96% of the dead. Big mistake: they focused more on their zero-Covid-19 policy than vaccination. Only 5% of people vaccinated had got boosters and only half of adults over 60 years had had one dose or more. That’s an argument for getting a booster.

Vaccination is our best defence. Parents should note the May 15 deadline – that’s next Sunday, folks – for vaccinating children, who can, although rarely, suffer serious complications or get Type 1 diabetes. Why risk that?

With 70 million vaccine doses administered in the country, we won’t go back to square one if a nasty new variant emerges. We may get infected, but it’s likely our “killer” T-cells will prevent severe illness. Research to produce better, longer-lasting vaccines is also ongoing.

Maybe we’ll all get Omicron once. Or twice. Then hopefully the winds of Omicron will blow away without causing a storm.

So for now we can believe the worst is over. Why worry about a future we can’t predict?


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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