A visually impaired person relies on his or her sense of touch for every movement in everyday life. The Covid-19 outbreak has presented the blind and many other physically challenged people with unique challenges.
People with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. They are at a higher risk because physical distancing may be difficult in a care home or when they have to be in close contact with caregivers. Yet they are adjusting, adapting and patiently awaiting their turn to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, sighted people who have been vaccinated, some with their preferred brand of vaccine, are critical about vaccine choice, procurement, registration and even lobby for a new blueprint. Some others have even made it political.
They have lost the plot. For starters, this crisis has nothing to do with politics. It is about who amongst us needs vaccination the soonest.
In some countries, the physically and intellectually challenged and other vulnerable people have been hidden from the public eye by a cloud of logistical issues. Being not on the mainstream radar, they are easily ignored in the overall vaccine distribution plan.
Let me tell a story here.
In the 1970s, when smallpox was rampant in Africa and India, Dr William Foege, an American epidemiologist working at a hospital in Nigeria, realised that the allocated vaccine doses were not enough to vaccinate everyone. He decided to innoculate only the people who were most at risk of getting the disease. By the end of the decade, thanks to this strategy – known as “surveillance/containment” – smallpox was eradicated. Hence, during a supply shortage, the key lies in deploying vaccinations among those who are most at risk. It is not about how one is valued in society.
Right from the onset, National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme Coordinating Minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced that the vaccine drive would prioritise people with disabilities, their families, caregivers, therapists, teachers and medical staff that support them.
The programme reached out to them through the OKU (orang kurang upaya, Malay for disabled) registry, care centres and NGOs. Some volunteers even went by boat into remote areas to vaccinate those who were unable to register under the MySejahtera app, as is required.
The immunisation programme also set up mobile vaccination clinics in nine states to facilitate the vaccination for villagers, indigenous people, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless. Cancer patients who are at risk from any kind of infection during their treatment are also a priority.
Registration for vaccination through MySejahtera was launched on Feb 23, 2021. However, on hindsight, Khairy has said it was a misstep to open registration to everyone in the first phase because the young and healthy who registered have become impatient at not being given a date yet.
According to the Special Committee On Covid-19 Vaccine Supply’s website on June 22, 2021, more than 15 million people have registered for vaccination and slightly more than four million have been vaccinated, leaving more than 11 million people on the waiting list. Of course, a dream vision would be to go to every doorstep of those 11 million people and vaccinate each and every of them. For every dose!
Covid-19 is one of the most unpredictable and contagious viruses we have known so far. Doctors, epidemiologists, government regulators, economic experts and the World Health Organisation (WHO) cannot predict the precise behaviour of this virus. So in this unprecedented crisis, and given the limited supply of vaccines, priorities must be set.
There is then the arduous task of “chasing the vaccine”, with many negotiations over supply before doses can be secured – the jabs do not come in bulk but in stages. Although the creation of the vaccines was a triumph of international cooperation, their distribution has been anything but that so far. Hedging their bets, the United States and other rich countries bought many times the number of doses they needed for their population from several manufacturers.
And the vaccine has become a commodity in the market. Some countries even imposed restrictive export regulations that have prevented the wider manufacturing and distribution of the vaccines. In May, WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rightly called the distribution a “scandalous inequity that is perpetuating the pandemic, ” pointing out that 75% of the vaccine doses had so far gone to just 10 countries.
The United States made many promises but as at late May 2021, the only vaccine it had exported was the Oxford-AstraZeneca one – which the US Food and Drug Administration had not even authorised at the time. They finally sent four million doses to Canada and Mexico.
Given our reliance on a portfolio of foreign suppliers and the need for the vaccines to be reviewed and approved by Malaysia’s National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency, the roll out of the vaccines has been nothing short of impressive.
Today, in late June, we have the capacity to vaccinate 200,000 people a day. So the issue now is no longer about the vaccines, their efficacy or roll out. We have passed all that. Our concern now is about reaching out to those who live in hard-to-reach places and those who are difficult to track down, like the millions of foreigners who have entered the country illegally and are not recorded anywhere.
Another concern are us, the people. In the first lockdown period, in March 2020, people were wellbehaved because they feared this unknown disease. Subsequently, masks and Covid-19 SOPs were tossed away by some, and the rest of society had to pay the cost, including the vulnerable ones like the disabled.
On the other hand, other ordinary people have emerged during this pandemic to do extraordinary work to help people in distress. They are procuring medicines and oxygen, volunteering and even looking after Covid-19 patients. The list is endless. It is these brave hearts who need to be celebrated when we return to normalcy.