‘Nothing Can Prepare You For This’: Khairy On Leading Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout

“I can only make effective decisions in the abstract when I know it means something to somebody with a name,” says Vaccine Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 18 — Khairy Jamaluddin, a 45-year-old minister without a public health background, was thrust into the monumental job of running Malaysia’s Covid-19 inoculation programme, the most complicated and largest ever vaccine rollout in history.

As science, technology and innovation minister — who studied philosophy, politics, and economics at the undergraduate level at Oxford University and did a master’s in legal and political theory at University College London — Khairy oversaw the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines and led the country’s vaccination strategy as co-chair of the Covid-19 Vaccine Supplies Access Guarantee Special Committee (JKJAV) with Health Minister Dr Adham Baba.

Despite the lack of medical and public health training, Khairy saw the need to procure Covid-19 vaccines early last year — though not as early as more farsighted countries like Singapore — as he first started discussions with the Chinese government last July on obtaining coronavirus vaccines. 

Around July, daily active cases in Malaysia fell to lows below 100, with health authorities occasionally claiming zero new local daily infections. Even as late as November, Malaysian health officials appeared dismissive of Covid-19 vaccines, after the joint partnership of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German drugmaker BioNTech announced 95 per cent efficacy of their mRNA vaccine in Phase Three trial results.

In contrast, Singapore, the first Asian nation to receive Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine last December 21, secured early access to coronavirus vaccines by getting confidential data from vaccine developers on the progress of various candidate vaccines ahead of publication in scientific journals.  

Speaking at The Oxford and Cambridge Society Malaysia’s “The Path to Herd Immunity” online dialogue last Wednesday, when Khairy was asked if running the Covid-19 inoculation drive was the greatest challenge in his personal and professional life, he recalled his past experience organising the 2017 SEA Games as youth and sports minister when the competition was hosted by Malaysia. 

“A lot of moving parts, a lot of balls in the air, but that wasn’t life and death at all. This is life and death, so nothing can prepare you for this,” said Khairy. “The decisions that the committee and I have to make on a daily basis have an outcome on somebody’s life.”

Khairy, who was appointed to lead the national Covid-19 vaccination drive as coordinating minister on February 4 this year, pointed out that no one has ever had this task before in Malaysia.

“And I pray that no one ever will have this job again. That’s because I don’t want there to be another pandemic. I didn’t have a manual, I didn’t have a predecessor in this job. Of course I can look at other countries, but things are different in different countries.”

The vaccine minister said his team usually briefs him at the end of the day on Covid-19 vaccination rates, but he described these reports as “abstract figures”.

So Khairy spends the last hours of his day from 11pm to 1am looking through emails from people personally asking him for help with their Covid-19 vaccination appointments and getting his team to fix such problems, like individuals getting sent to inoculation centres far away from their home.  

“I’m looking at his name, trying to remember his name, so that the abstract figures at the end of the day make personal sense to me and drives home the point that I’m dealing with the lives of people in Malaysia,” said the coordinating minister of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK).

“I can only make effective decisions in the abstract when I know it means something to somebody with a name.”

Khairy Jamaluddin, Coordinating Minister of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme

It has been 118 days since the first batch of Covid-19 vaccine doses arrived in Malaysia on February 21. A total of 3,632,195 people, or just about 11 per cent of the total population, have received at least one vaccine dose as of June 16, since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin received the first vaccine jab on February 24.

Daily vaccination rates, however, have surpassed the 200,000-mark two weeks ahead of plan, as more than 200,000 daily jabs were given the past two consecutive days. Khairy plans to fully vaccinate 80 per cent of the total population by December — including Labuan, Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak, and Selangor by August — although he has stopped describing the threshold as “herd immunity”. He believes Covid-19 may well end up as an endemic disease that is ever-present in Malaysia, though as a less dangerous threat in the time to come.

Khairy admitted a key misstep in the immunisation plan, where he described the opening of Covid-19 vaccination registrations across all age groups on February 23 as an “error” on his part.

“While the vaccination phases were clearly articulated, the sense among the public is that I registered on February 23, [therefore] why have I not received my appointment yet?” he said.

In countries like the UK and Singapore, registrations for Covid-19 vaccination are carried out based on age bands. Singapore only recently allowed its citizens aged between 12 and 39 to book their appointments within a two-week priority window starting on June 11.

With an additional 1,333,800 Covid-19 vaccine doses expected to be delivered from this week until July 2, and the government looking to fully vaccinate at least 10 per cent of the population within the same period, Khairy hopes there will be no changes to the current leadership managing the Covid-19 response.

“As we go into July and August, what I would like to put out there is, I think the less you disrupt the present structure, the better [it is] because there are clear relationships that have been built over the past few months that need to drive this programme through. 

“The last thing you need right now is to disrupt this structure,” Khairy said, in response to a question on the differing roles between federal agencies and ministries in handling the epidemic and calls for a redistribution of political power through the convening of Parliament.

Muhyiddin’s office said in a statement yesterday that the government took note of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s views, after Istana Negara issued a statement that the King believed Parliament should reconvene as soon as possible to allow debate on emergency laws, the Covid-19 response, and the National Recovery Plan.

The Conference of Rulers separately said the state of emergency should not be extended beyond the scheduled expiry date on August 1.

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