Big Smile, No Teeth: If we don’t vaccinate we’ll never be done with Covid-19


We’re looking at a new normal where, among other practices, some countries are not going to let you enter unless you’re vaccinated. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Here we are, into the fifth month of 2021. Five months into the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic and most countries have got vaccinations going full swing. So that means we should be returning to a life without masks, where handshakes aren’t replaced by fist bumps, and going out and socialising again without risks, right?

Not exactly.

Herd immunity, when enough of a population is immune to a virus so that it can’t spread effectively, is what we were aiming for with all the mass vaccinations, but now herd immunity is looking less and less likely. This is for a number of reasons.

The first is that vaccination rollout varies from place to place and country to country. Singapore has vaccinated almost 19% of the country, while Malaysia is only at around 3%.

Clearly, Singapore has an easier task, as it’s smaller so it’s easier to distribute vaccines, but even in Israel, which is quite small and had early success vaccinating its population, has run into a speed bump. Younger people don’t want to get vaccinated and Israel has turned to offering free beer and pizza to get them into vaccination booths.

And that’s the second problem: People don’t want to get vaccinated.

It’s not only the younger people in Israel, in the United States vaccinations were speeding along at first but now vaccination rates are dropping as the parts of the population that are hesitant about vaccines are, well, hesitating.

It’s estimated 30% of Americans don’t want to get the vaccine, which really puts a dent in the idea of herd immunity since researchers estimate we need about 70% to 80% of a population to be vaccinated to get there. That’s cutting the numbers really, really close.

And then there’s the problem of new variants of the virus.

So far none of the new variants has been drastically more lethal than the original Covid-19 virus, but some of them are far more contagious.

Right now the dominant strain of Covid-19 is B117 and it’s 60% more transmissible. Researchers estimate to hit herd immunity for this new strain we need 80%-90% of the population immune. Immunity equals vaccinated. And that increasingly looks like it’s not going to happen thanks to vaccine hesitancy.

So what does all this mean for the world?

It seems pretty obvious there will be no return to normalcy, there’s just a path to a new normal. And that new normal probably has a lot of facets we have grown accustomed to in over the past year.

We’re looking at a new normal where the high risk sectors of the population get vaccinated and this cuts down on deaths, and that’s great. We’re looking at a new normal where some countries are not going to let you enter unless you’re vaccinated. We’re looking at a new normal where, just like flu season rolls around, Covid-19 season is going to roll around every year and people will get sick and, yes, people will still die from it.

And our new normal? It definitely has masks worn in public in it. The mask might be here to stay, just like it lingered after SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) spread in places like Hong Kong and Taipei. Not everyone in Hong Kong wore them back then after SARS died down, but they weren’t an uncommon sight either.

For all of us in the near term, masks will probably still be required everywhere.

And most of this is because a certain segment of the population refuses to get vaccinated. The only serious side effect to any of the vaccines has been blood clots associated with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca’s jabs. And those occur at one in 100,000 and one in a million doses respectively. Covid-19 kills two people in every 1,000. To put this in perspective, your chance of dying in a car accident is one in 106, your chance of dying of heart disease is one in six.

But getting vaccinated is scary. Right....

The irony of all this is some young person shrugging off the vaccine during the pandemic, only to die of seasonal Covid-19 as a senior citizen a half century from now when all this is just a distant memory. Make no mistake, that will happen.

That makes me think of a great line from the movie Magnolia: “You might be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you.” And if we don’t vaccinate to get rid of Covid-19, Covid-19 isn’t going to be done with us. Not ever.


Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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