The Malaysian government’s decision to exempt fully vaccinated individuals from certain Covid-19 rules from Tuesday onwards entrenches inequality and lacks scientific basis.
Freedoms like crossing district and state lines, attending religious activity in places of worship, dining in, engaging in sports and recreational activities, and domestic tourism are given to double-jabbed people on the assumption that vaccines prevent infection and transmission of the virus.
This premise is flawed in light of rising vaccine breakthrough infections in Malaysia. In the past week from August 2 to 8, a total of 27,822 breakthrough cases were reported among partially or fully vaccinated people, comprising about 21 per cent of 132,118 total Covid-19 cases. About 99 per cent of breakthrough cases were diagnosed in Categories One to Three upon testing.
It is unknown how many Covid-19 patients diagnosed with mild disease upon testing eventually deteriorate to severe illness and die, including breakthrough cases. Inexplicably, the Ministry of Health (MOH) does not limit its breakthrough infection statistics to only fully vaccinated individuals, i.e. two weeks after the second jab.
At a cursory glance, Malaysia’s 21 per cent breakthrough infection rate is much higher than the United Kingdom’s 12.5 per cent rate and rates ranging from 0.2 per cent to 5.9 per cent across various reporting states in the United States. These rates are the share of overall Covid-19 cases among the fully vaccinated in the UK and the US, and in Malaysia’s case, among those with “vaccination history” (including both partially and fully vaccinated individuals, as MOH does not provide data specific to the fully vaccinated).
It is unclear why Malaysia’s breakthrough infection rate far exceeds the US. The US primarily uses mRNA shots – Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – in its vaccine rollout, while Malaysia uses Pfizer, AstraZeneca-Oxford, and Sinovac. The Malaysian government should release statistics on breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated people by vaccine brand for further clarity.
Crucially, new findings from the UK and the US suggest that fully vaccinated people may be able to spread Covid-19, as similar viral loads were found between vaccinated and unvaccinated people infected with the Delta variant.
This means that mandating vaccine passports for domestic travel and tourism, eating out, or praying at places of worship may not help with Malaysia’s epidemic control, since double-vaccinated people have the potential to transmit the virus, even though vaccines are very effective in preventing serious illness and death.
In other words, our Covid-19 vaccination programme should be perceived in terms of personal protection for individuals from hospitalisation and death, but not as a sole public health tool to control outbreaks, especially through discriminatory vaccine passports.
When England launched Freedom Day on July 19, Covid-19 rules, including mask mandates and social distancing, were relaxed for everyone, not just for the fully vaccinated. The UK is only requiring vaccine passports for entry into nightclubs and venues with large crowds by the end of September.
Back then, the UK had fully vaccinated 53 per cent of its total population. When Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced yesterday various vaccination privileges for double-jabbed people, Malaysia had only inoculated 27 per cent of its total population. Hospitals across multiple states are currently full, as outbreaks worsen across nearly the entire country, except for Labuan, Sarawak, and perhaps Perlis.
There is also a huge disparity in vaccination rates across the country, from 85 per cent of the adult population in Labuan to just 17 per cent in Sabah as of August 8. Out of the 8.8 million fully vaccinated adults in Malaysia, 41 per cent live in the Greater Klang Valley of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, and Negeri Sembilan.
Yet, inexplicably, the region does not qualify for vaccination privileges open only to states under Phase Two of the National Recovery Plan and beyond, even though more than half of the adult population in Negeri Sembilan and the Klang Valley is fully vaccinated. In fact, every single adult in the Klang Valley has received at least one vaccine dose, according to official statistics.
Malaysia’s vaccination programme is running at top speed at between 400,000 and 500,000 daily jabs, a maximum rate limited by staggered vaccine deliveries, an impressive feat that surpasses even the US that administered 200 million jabs in US president Joe Biden’s first 100 days of office. As the US’ population is about 10 times larger than Malaysia, on a per capita basis, Malaysia’s current 400,000 to 500,000 daily shots-to-the-arm is more than double the US’ peak vaccination rate.
Hence, it is baffling why the government chose not to wait until all states achieve a certain vaccination rate that is deemed acceptable to lift movement restrictions for everyone, including the unvaccinated, given that we are inoculating more than 1 per cent of our population every day.
Vaccine passports mandated for travel and social activities are arguably unconstitutional, violating Article 5 (personal liberty) and Article 9 (freedom of movement) of the Federal Constitution. Although Article 9 is subject to public health laws, restricting freedom of movement only for unvaccinated people is baseless since vaccinated individuals may be just as contagious as the unvaccinated when it comes to Delta.
Vaccine passports discriminate against people who refuse to get vaccinated and those who are unable to receive the jabs for medical reasons, including children who are not yet eligible for Covid-19 inoculation. In terms of the ability to spread Covid-19, there is no difference between both groups of unvaccinated people. And with emerging research on Delta, there is apparently no difference between unvaccinated and vaccinated people in transmitting the virus either.
The government should halt the use of vaccine passports within the country – which creates two different classes of people – and clarify communications about vaccine breakthrough cases that place the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. Any relaxation of Covid-19 rules should apply to all residents, not just the vaccinated.
Amendment note: The standfirst and fifth paragraphs were amended to clarify the US’ breakthrough infection rates.
Boo Su-Lyn is CodeBlue editor-in-chief. She is a libertarian, or classical liberal, who believes in minimal state intervention in the economy and socio-political issues.