No one’s safe till all are safe

Photo: Bloomberg

IN just one year, science has delivered effective vaccines against Covid-19, a record-breaking achievement and a true testament to the potential of medical science. In the effort to turn the tide of this pandemic, Malaysia must commit to providing equitable access to vaccines for everyone in the country, regardless of nationality, or we risk squandering the opportunity we have before us.

This includes providing vaccines for free to migrants in Malaysia to ensure maximum protection for all.

For vaccines to be effective, we need a high rate of vaccination within the population. While the exact percentage is not yet certain, experts currently predict that more than 60% to 70%, perhaps even as high as 90%, of the population must be vaccinated to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity against Covid-19.

It is important to note that the threshold for achieving herd immunity is not based on the proportion of immune citizens, rather, it is based on the proportion of immune people, regardless of their legal status.

As such, non-citizens, who officially make up 10% of the Malaysian population, must be included in the government’s National Vaccination Plan. The issue is not one of citizenship but of what science demands to achieve herd immunity so that we can stop the pandemic’s threat to public health and the economy.

There are those who want to restrict access to vaccines to Malaysians only and some who want non-citizens to pay for vaccination. Charging may deter migrant workers from coming forward or their employers from getting them vaccinated, which can prevent us from achieving the high targets necessary. The most effective option is to ensure free access to vaccines regardless of nationality.

No one is safe, until everyone is safe.

Ensuring free and equitable access to vaccines for migrants is especially important considering that not all Malaysians may be able to be vaccinated, such as newborns and those with certain health conditions. The goal of herd immunity is not just to protect those vaccinated but also those who cannot be vaccinated yet are vulnerable to the disease. Widespread vaccination is essential to protect our children.

Furthermore, migrants are an integral part of Malaysian society and thus must be given equal protection. Foreign workers make up 32% of the agriculture sector, 23% of the construction sector and 22% of the manufacturing sector, all of which have been designated essential sectors throughout the various movement control order phases since the start of the pandemic.

Their jobs and their poor living conditions often put them at higher risk for contracting Covid-19 as they may not always be able to practise precautionary behaviours such as physical distancing and frequent handwashing. That’s why foreign workers are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with numerous outbreaks occurring at construction sites and manufacturing plants where they work.

We cannot consider their labour to be essential to the country’s economy yet at the same time refuse to provide them with potentially life-saving medical intervention. We cannot value their labour more than we do their lives.

Similarly, as long as the government insists on continuing to detain undocumented migrants, including refugees, during the pandemic, we must provide free vaccinations to all the detainees regardless of their legal status to reduce the risk of further clusters occurring in crowded detention centres.

Being confined in any type of crowded setting confers a high risk of Covid-19 transmission, and indeed, we have seen several clusters emerge from detention centres and prisons throughout the course of the pandemic. Any cluster anywhere risks spilling over into the wider community. Thus, from a public health perspective, we must prioritise immunising detainees.

The past year has repeatedly taught us that in the fight against Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. As we are finalising our National Vaccination Plan, we must heed these lessons from 2020 and include vaccine protection for the entire population in the country, citizens or non-citizens. We cannot let differences of nationality undermine the hard work and heroic sacrifices made by scientists, healthcare workers and the public so far.

The virus does not care about nationality, likewise our government must not either if we are to successfully find our way out of this pandemic.


Khazanah Research InstituteNote: Research associate Nazihah focuses on public health and inequality and Loong on industrial policy, climate change and sustainability.

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