Providing some optimism for an otherwise bleak year is the recent announcement on Pfizer and BioNTech. Perhaps now, with the promise of a potential vaccine, some of us might even allow ourselves to dream when this nightmare of a pandemic will end. 

But until dreams turn into reality, we cannot afford to let our guard down and be complacent. Policymakers, while permitted to expect for the best as humans do, need to prepare for the worst. 

Relevantly, in preparation for the discovery of a vaccine—either the one above, or the dozens others currently going through trials—the government needs to lay the groundwork to simultaneously increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of the need to vaccinate, while reducing the potential implications of anti-vaccine propaganda.  

The latter is important as the anti-vaccine lobby in Malaysia is getting more organised, vocal and influential in recent years, and is now a growing threat in the control of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) in Malaysia. 

Raising the alarm is how polio, which Malaysia had eradicated in 2000, had made a comeback in 2019 with four cases.

While there is no doubt that there are multiple causes behind people not getting vaccinated, we should not discount the role played, or could potentially be played by anti-vaccine propaganda on the public’s decision to vaccinate.

This is because even if these propagandists manage to influence the decision-making of a minority of the population to put off COVID-19 vaccination, this can already undermine our efforts to create herd immunity — as this requires a very high immunisation rate among the population. 

This can come at the cost of prolonging the pandemic longer than necessary at the expense of our national economic security and even lives. 

Nonetheless, in moving forward, there must be acknowledgements that a majority of the population believes in the need for vaccines, and among those who do not, there are multifaceted causes behind their hesitancy. This necessitates a comprehensive, yet tailored approach to address the problem at hand.

In our upcoming policy paper on countering COVID-19 anti-vaccination propaganda, we outline four key strategies: (1) public communications; (2) inoculation measures; (3) fact-checking; and (4) punitive legislation. The below presents a short summary. 

First, pertaining to public communications, is that the government must be proactive in communicating to the public the importance of vaccinating, and emphasise the safety of any eventual vaccine chosen to be administered. 

By being proactive, the government can preempt and curtail anti-vaccination propaganda and negative publicity to immunisation. This is crucial to assuage concerns stemming from the breakneck pace of which the COVID-19 vaccines are being developed, and any other concerns that may arise. 

Towards communicating these messages, the government needs to include all relevant stakeholders to be part of, and take ownership of the communications strategy. As different stakeholders possess rapport and enjoy trust with different audiences, this will ensure that the message is delivered from a credible source relative to them — despite the differences in faith, political leanings, ideologies, etc. 

Second, the government must also include inoculation measures as part of its wider communications strategy. Inoculation here, similar to vaccines, works by exposing the public to a toned down version of potential mis- or disinformation in hopes of building society’s cognitive ability to spot them “in the wild”. 

This can be done by shedding light on the various types of anti-vaccination propaganda that has been seen, and by educating the public of the various strategies these propagandists employ for their messages to gain traction. 

Third, there is greater room for collaboration and cooperation in fact-checking initiatives between governmental and non-governmental fact-checkers. 

This can include setting up a “common pool” of potentially false information to be fact-checked together, and as a result reducing duplication of work; cross-posting of the outcomes of the fact-checks on the respective partner’s platforms; and publishing debunks in more languages other than Bahasa Malaysia and English. 

Fourth, and lastly, it could be argued that it is justified to prosecute those bent on spreading COVID-19 disinformation under existing laws. Differentiating this category of false information from others seen during this infodemic is that anti-vaccine propaganda could reasonably cause harm to the public. Having said that, this punitive response must keep in mind principles of proportionality and only be reserved as a last resort. 

In closing, the recent extension of the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) means that it has dawned on most people that the year will end pretty much as it had begun. 

But differentiating the start of the year and how it can end is that we now know what to expect from this pandemic, meaning that a failure to plan ahead is, as the saying goes, planning to fail. 

Preparing the public for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine needs to happen now, and the government needs to use its convening power to gather all relevant stakeholders who can lend their respective expertise on this new frontline of the battle against COVID-19.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 13 November 2020.

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