MANY, from political leaders to health specialists, agree that concrete punitive steps need to be taken against those using false information to discourage the public from Covid-19 vaccination as their actions directly impact the national vaccination drive and may cause loss of lives.
However, if this step is taken, how should it be done and what kinds of punishment would be effective?
Before enforcing punishment, the public needs to be educated sufficiently about the responsibility of spreading non-evidence based misinformation, says Dr Leow Chiuan Yee, a senior lecturer specialising in vaccinology and immunology at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“If someone is found to have intentionally spread fake information to negatively influence others about the Covid-19 vaccine, they must be legally punished, ” says Dr Leow, adding that although the number of anti-vaxxers is low, they may be social influencers and can easily sway those who are unable to analyse information critically.
In Malaysia, vaccine misinformation is primarily spread through social media and messaging apps but it can also be done through friends’ circles. Taking action against those who spread Covid-19 misinformation or anti-vaccine propaganda is necessary for the safety of the community, says Dr Leow.
Dr Leow believes that apart from fines, imposing community service will be a fitting punishment as the perpetrators can also then be made to witness first-hand the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the community.
“Perhaps the government can compel those who spread fake news about the vaccine to help frontliners. Looking at the work of the frontliners, for example frontliners who have to bury patients who died due to Covid-19, those who spread such messages will be able to see for themselves which is safer, the vaccine or getting Covid-19, ” says Leow, who acknowledges that Malaysia is in dire need of medical and non-medical volunteers as cases have skyrocketed.
According to the Covid Performance Index, a report released in January by Australia-based think tank Lowy Institute, Malaysia will need to mobilise one million non-medical volunteers to help ease the burden of medical practitioners. After receiving training, volunteer tasks can include contact tracing, monitoring compliance with standard operating procedures, assisting in vaccination centres, and disseminating health information.
“Those who initiate vaccine misinformation must be given heavier punishment, but those who only spread such messages can be given community work as a penalty so that they will be more aware of the consequences of their actions before sharing unverified and potentially dangerous misinformation, ” Dr Leow says.
“It is not responsible at all for someone to share information without doing proper research, ” he says.
Dr Leow encourages the public to share information from verified sources instead.
International Islamic University Malaysia public health specialist Asst Prof Dr Mohammad Farhan Rusli supports freedom of speech and the entitlement of each individual to his or her personal opinion. However, he argues that this entitlement can be restricted when its exercise causes severe harm, and potentially death, to members of the public.
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin recently announced that the Covid-19 Vaccine Supply Access Guarantee Special Committee (JKJAV) will be studying the possibility of making vaccination compulsory for all if the number of those registered in the national Covid-19 immunisation programme is still far from achieving herd immunity. Currently, about 13.8 million people above 18 have signed up to receive Covid-19 vaccination out of the total 32.7 million population, and more than 4.2 million doses of the vaccine have been administered. The target is to inoculate 80% of the population by year-end.Encourage public support of vaccination
Dr Mohammad Farhan is against punishment for those who choose not to take the Covid-19 vaccine themselves for whatever reason they may have. He believes that engagement and education on the life-saving benefits of vaccines should be emphasised to change the minds of the vaccine hesitant.
Dr Mohammad Farhan, who is Selangor Covid-19 Task Force Operations Director, believes incentives rather than punishment are a better way to encourage public buy-in of vaccination. Another way to encourage vaccinations is to allow only vaccinated individuals to use government services like trains or buses, or to enter government buildings.
However, sterner action should be meted out to those peddling anti-vaxx propaganda to discourage others from taking it, he says.
“When people spread fake news discouraging Covid-19 vaccinations among the general public, it may disrupt public order. This is because the arguments of anti-vaxxers are not based on scientific evidence. If there were real threats to the issue of vaccines, we welcome those comments but when comments are not supported by hard scientific evidence, then not only are they false statements that will mislead the public but they are harmful and can cause death. It is akin to supporting someone to commit suicide, ” he says.
Dr Mohammad Farhan gives the example of Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) and polio vaccines which helped save millions of lives as evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines in stopping the spread of dangerous illnesses.
“I don’t think we should compound or punish those who do not want to take the vaccine themselves, but we should use the full extent of the law against those spreading fake news about the Covid-19 vaccine, ” says Dr Moham-mad Farhan, who supports fines for perpetrators over imprisonment as Malaysia’s prisons and detention centres are overcrowded.
However, he points out that many of those sharing vaccine misinformation may not have malicious purposes or intend to cause public harm, but have simply spread such dangerous messages among their circles due to mistrust and an absence of knowledge. This is why, aside from just legal punishment, it is even more important that information on the Covid-19 vaccine be made available and understandable to the layman, and accessible to the general public.