Marking its first anniversary soon, COVID-19 cases have been fluctuating since its emergence in Sarawak last year. However, conversations have shifted to the discovery of vaccines in the end of 2020 and the distribution of vaccines globally early this year.
Although the discovery of vaccines to this deadly virus shines a light of hope to all, a new wave of anti-vaccines movement is sweeping around the world and Malaysia is not excluded. Although there is scant evidence that vaccine refusal is genuinely increasing in the population, several studies have shown patterns of decreased confidence in vaccinations due to different reasons. Based on the findings from the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are still a substantial number of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPD) remaining in our pockets despite the call for nation-wide vaccination by the government years ago.
The anti-vaccines movement and their rhetoric are putting our families and our communities at risk by luring the people to cater to their erroneous belief that vaccinations would do more harm than contributing towards the elimination of the COVID-19 virus. This could be the point where a slow burning crisis of our public health and our state economy security tips to collapse. The situation is exacerbated by this movement in engaging people in fear mongering that just frightens people into getting vaccines administered into their bloodstreams. This situation creates a phenomena called vaccine hesitancy.
According to WHO, vaccine hesitancy can be connoted as delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite availability of vaccination services. It could potentially undermine the effort to create state-wide herd immunity towards this virus should vaccine hesitancy develop among our communities. In turn, this can pose a knock-on dispute to our state-economic security and the lives of Sarawakians. Hence, the state government and policymakers can consider playing by a proactive approach in laying groundwork to increase public awareness on the significance of vaccination which achieves the goal of state-wide herd immunity and restrain the spread of this propaganda.
The first strategic modus operandi that the state government can do is to adopt a proactive communication strategy with the public in Sarawak. Since the first COVID-19 outbreak in Sarawak, The State Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) Sarawak has taken one step ahead by maintaining a consistent communication with the people in Sarawak on the development of the outbreak here by leveraging various communication channels. This includes daily COVID-19 cases update, standard operating procedures (SOP) and border control policies. This proactive movement by the Sarawak government should be applauded as it keeps Sarawakians informed with the right and verified information and therefore a similar approach should be considered as we shift to the vaccination phase. The state government should be equipped with an appropriate communication strategy to outgun misinformation on the vaccine by irresponsible entities. An effective top down approach in communicating with the public with significance in educating on the importance of vaccination among the public. This will counteract and curb pessimistic propaganda against vaccines and negative stunt publicity by the antivaxxers. An assurance from the government of the safety of the vaccines is essential to alleviate concerns of the immunisation especially when we are about to enter the vaccine distribution phase. This will eventually lay the foundation of trust and confidence in the vaccination programme offered by the government.
There is no one size fit all communication approach to ensure that the importance of vaccination is communicated
effectively to all layers of society. Comprehensive yet tailored communication by taking into account the demographics and geographics in Sarawak should be taken into consideration as well. Due to limited internet access in the rural areas of Sarawak, opting for social media would not be a reliable option. Instead, the government can utilise radio stations such as the Iban radio as the primary communication instrument. This way, every layer of the society of every geographics can be communicated with the right information.
In the light of this, tailored communication which addresses the specific audiences should also focus on appreciating their concerns, misconceptions and religious beliefs. This is especially true for the people of Sarawak who are in the rural or the suburbs as they might have different concerns and misconceptions towards the vaccines compared to the ones in the urban cities of Sarawak. Besides, non-governmental organisations (NGO) play an integral role in facilitating an effective COVID-19 vaccine rollout. NGOs in Sarawak can participate by collaborating closely with government agencies to combat misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiments on the internet. This includes developing sophisticated strategies in response, including communicating with openness in an evidence-informed way; creating safe spaces to encourage audience dialogue; fostering community partnerships; and countering misinformation with care.
Partnerships and collaborations are critical in times of crisis. As we prepare to battle the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, government, NGOs and media platforms can collaborate to launch state-level fact-checking channels to dispel misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines in Sarawak. A strong fact-checking campaign and ecosystem that helps Sarawakian to access the right information and dispels any baseless misinformation.
Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar, President of the Malaysian Public Health Specialist Association lamented that the anti-vaccine movement in this nation is getting more vocal and synchronised. Thus, it is only sensible that there is a foreseeable potential for them in damaging our health system through the spread of misinformation on social media. Despite commitments to tackle falsehood from the online social platforms, a constant bubbling of baseless conspiracies online looks to have eroded the trust for some in an effective vaccine.
Pivoting from this circumstance, the social media should be seen as a double edged sword that should be wielded correctly as it could potentially cause adverse effects if it is not controlled.
Hence, we must ensure that social media is not the breeding ground for the vaccine misinformation in Sarawak. To be able to do this, collaboration among policy makers is demanded as they hold a certain autonomy in decision making. Harnessing this privilege, the government can consider introducing an emergency legislation to stamp out dangerous anti-vaccine contents online. This includes imposing statutory duty on media firms to remove the material in a fixed period of time.
Should the Sarawak government spearhead this move, further collaboration opportunities with the federal government must be considered to bring this legislation nation-wide. Therefore, as vaccine hesitancy is listed by the WHO as one of its top 10 global health threats, authorities can leverage this concern by introducing a stringent bill in order to achieve twinning goals of ensuring a successful vaccine rollout and stamping out baseless misinformation concurrently.
Owl & Badger Research is an independent research company based in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.