Harris Zainul was quoted in The Star

Sunday, 31 Jan 2021

ONE of the best ways to tackle misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine and to overcome this pandemic is to ensure that the public gets access to enough accurate and verified information.

While all the necessary information about the Covid-19 vaccine is out there, we should not equate availability of information with accessibility of information, says Harris Zainul, a Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia analyst who specialises in policies to counter misinformation.

“With regards to the latter, I think this is where the real “battleground” will be in our fight against anti-vaccine propaganda – how do we make scientific information more accessible to the masses?”

If the right kind of information is not made accessible to the public at large, Harris warns that those who are seeking further information into the safety, efficacy and need of the vaccines might turn to less credible sources.

Harris published a policy brief in November 2020 on the topic titled, Countering Covid-19 Anti-vaccination Propaganda, where he highlights the risk of how even having a minority segment of the population rejecting vaccination could threaten national efforts for Covid-19 herd immunity.

On the right track

Despite some challenges, Malaysia appears to be on the right path in our efforts to combat Covid-19 vaccine misinformation.

“For instance, we see the Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) Minister Khairy Jamaluddin highlighting cases of vaccine misinformation on his social media platforms. This is good to raise awareness of the phenomenon. But at the same time, raising awareness is insufficient and we need to be more proactive in countering the misinformation, ” says Harris.

Public advocacy measures can be carried out on the need to vaccinate our population against Covid-19. Ideally this advocacy should involve a cross-section of stakeholders to guard against trust deficits that could potentially undermine the pro-vaccination message, he suggests.

Fact-checkers must also be more proactive in debunking the false claims circulating online.

“As it stands, the Sebenarnya.my fact-checking repository contains only one fact-check on the “conspiracy theory” type of false claim, nine fact-checks related to “general medical advice to treat Covid-19”, while not one had been made on false claims of “vaccine development and availability”, ” he says.

Harris highlights these three types of claims specifically because they are the types of claims most likely to contain anti-vax propaganda.

Sebenarnya.my is a website managed by the Communications and Multimedia Ministry since 2017 to curb the spread of false news.

In addition to publishing more verified information on the Covid-19 vaccine, we also need to be addressing the trust deficit among the vaccine hesitant groups, says Harris.

“We should not expect that the “marketplace of ideas”, where good ideas are presumed to trump the bad ones would work as humans are less rational than we would think. Here, I think confidence building measures will be key – to build confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and to build confidence in the government that they will make the right decisions for us, ” he says.

In November, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry said that it will enhance Covid-19 communication, and address factors that cause trust deficits and the spread of disinformation.

Working together

To ensure the right message about Covid-19 vaccinations gets delivered effectively, all parties need to cooperate to form a large campaign on vaccine awareness through all forms of media channels.

Apart from radio and televisions, there also needs to be added focus on social media, where most misinformation starts, says Dr Fatimah Salim, a senior lecturer in Chemistry from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), who has also been actively educating the public on current scientific issues on her personal social media account.

She points to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Whatsapp, and Telegram as some of the means used by those who promote anti-vaccination. These can be the very same channels that can be used to counter disinformation head-on.

Fatimah, also advocates for more traditional means like billboards and pamphlets to reach areas without internet access, and even car speakers, so that all areas are covered.

“Going back to basics may produce good results too as we will be showing how serious we are about this matter, ” she says.

She adds that there is a need to convey scientific information in layman forms, or relatable analogies.

“Avoid jargons to reach the non-scientific community. Provide scientific hypotheses to support or debunk existing ‘rumours’ about ways to strengthen the immune system.” she says.

It is also important to inform the public that the sooner we vaccinate and establish herd immunity, the sooner we can get back to our day-to-day lives, adds Fatimah.

Improve vaccine literacy

Malaysia will be starting our national Covid-19 vaccination plan next month, which will be free for all citizens, and with the goal of immunising more than 80% of the population. For the plan to be effective, the information we give about the vaccine must also be effective.

“We need to educate the public that while the vaccine will lower the risk of infection, it does not fully prevent people from being infected in the future. And we must explain the concept of herd immunity, ” says Fatimah, who adds that the only way to get out of this pandemic in this stage is through vaccination.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines have reported about 95% effectiveness at preventing both mild and severe symptoms of the virus after a person receives both the initial and booster shot. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has a 70.4% efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic infections, according to interim data.

Therefore, it is still important for members of the public to practice social distancing and follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) after taking the vaccine, at least until herd immunity is achieved.

According to the World Health Organisation, herd immunity or population immunity, is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.

The global public health arm of the United Nations warns that herd immunity against Covid-19 should be achieved by vaccination, not by exposing the public to the pathogen, as this may result in unnecessary cases and deaths.

The percentage of people who need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity varies with each disease. Measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated while for Polio it’s about 80%. The threshold for Covid-19 herd immunity is not yet known.

Foster social responsibility

As there is no law mandating vaccination, the best way forward is to inculcate social responsibility among the public, says Fatimah. And in order to do this, we must be transparent about the vaccine, including any possible side effects from the medication, she says.

The way to do this is to compare probable symptoms before and after vaccinations, and to tell the public why this happens by relating it to natural immune responses. Most importantly, it is important to let the public know about the real benefits of the vaccine and its life-saving abilities, and how this heavily outweighs possible vaccine side-effects, which are mostly mild and temporary, such as injection pain, fever, or nausea..

Mosti has explained that the approved Covid-19 vaccines will not cause long-term harmful side effects. Furthermore the vaccines will be regulated by the Health Ministry’s National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA).

“We need to tell the public that different vaccines have different components so that they do not generalise all of them. Vaccine components and their relative amount also need to be declared and explained, or else there will be those who will fall for unjustified controversies about how certain vaccine components can be harmful, ” Fatimah says.

This article was first published in The Star on 31 January 2021.

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