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A health worker holds a vial of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine to be administered to staff at a hospital in Sungai Buloh. Photo: AP

Malaysia’s coronavirus vaccination efforts dogged by accusations of queue-jumping

  • A week into its national immunisation plan, doctors have complained that political aides and workers are cutting ahead of medical frontliners to get inoculated
  • Science minister Khairy Jamaluddin has asked whistle-blowers to reach out to him, and says just 6.1 per cent of the population has so far registered for a vaccine
A week after the launch of its national immunisation plan, Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccination efforts have come under scrutiny following allegations that political aides and workers were jumping the queue.

Local media reported that doctors had complained these staff were cutting ahead of medical frontliners to receive the vaccine.

In a swift response, science minister Khairy Jamaluddin – who is at the helm of Malaysia’s 4 billion ringgit (US$985 million) public health plan – said he would investigate the claims and urged whistle-blowers to reach out to him, promising anonymity.

“My team has been monitoring whistle-blowers’ comments on social media about vaccine queue-jumping,” he wrote on Twitter. “I shared it immediately with [Chong Chee Kheong, the health ministry’s deputy director general] who is with me in the [vaccine] task force to investigate. We take every exposé seriously. Vaccine equity is important.”

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Khairy has taken to the social media site to actively address concerns over the vaccination drive, assuring Malaysians of the safety of the vaccine as well as addressing the complaints of irate citizens unhappy with perceived double standards.

The immunisation plan is expected to be completed before the end of 2021, after which Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said the government intends to hold elections.

The country’s voluntary vaccination programme is being carried out in three stages. From February to April, 300,000 medical and 200,000 non-medical frontline workers such as politicians as well as security and welfare officers will be inoculated. Next in line are at-risk groups such as the infirm and elderly, while the final phase is for Malaysian adults.

Although there was some resistance regarding the government’s first-phase prioritisation of elected representatives over workers in sectors such as education, the Perikatan Nasional administration said the decision was made because lawmakers were on the ground meeting people, and inoculating them would boost confidence in the vaccine as well as its uptake.

Public health systems specialist Khor Swee Kheng said the government’s response could be improved in two ways.

“One, the government must publicise the framework for how decisions are made, not just announce the decisions themselves in a top-down fashion,” he said. “Two, it must communicate the reasons population group A is earlier than population group B, not just announce the sequence”.

Public trust is really crucial to ensure all efforts to contain and overcome the pandemic are successful

Nevertheless, public health experts say the programme has gone smoothly in its first week, with no reports of major logistical issues in maintaining temperature requirements, reaching remote communities or unintentional wastage of vaccine doses.

However, the matter of public trust is crucial and tricky to manoeuvre, according to public health analyst Nazihah Noor of Khazanah Research Institute.

“Public trust is really crucial to ensure all efforts to contain and overcome the pandemic are successful; one major way to build and instil this trust is through greater public transparency to allow for accountability,” she said. “For example, the list of groups who qualify for phase one of the vaccination roll-out should have been made public before the vaccination campaign began, not after.”

On top of this, she said, the issue of queue jumpers was a disheartening one that might undermine efforts to tackle the pandemic and lead to demotivation among health care workers in an already overburdened system, as cases continue to climb. Malaysia has recorded a total of 304,135 coronavirus cases.

While science minister Khairy’s move to clamp down on queue-jumping and collect reports from whistle-blowers was important, Nazihah said “it may not be enough”.

“Whistle-blowers might be afraid of negative repercussions to themselves should they report queue jumpers, especially if the queue jumpers are in powerful positions, and thus be discouraged from reporting,” she said.

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“Relying on whistle-blowers to prevent queue-jumping might not be a sustainable or efficient way of tackling this issue, especially as we progress with the vaccination campaign roll out; instead, the government must be the ones to ensure that only those who meet the criteria for specific prioritisation phases are given a vaccination date within that phase.”

According to Khairy, some 1.47 million people have so far registered for a vaccination, or just 6.1 per cent of the country’s population – well below the goal of vaccinating 80 per cent by the first quarter of next year. As of Tuesday, Malaysia had vaccinated some 53,000 people.

Meanwhile, members of the opposition have criticised the queue-jumping.

“In a country where abuse of political power and positions are commonplace, it is not surprising that there has been a strong negative reaction from among the ranks of medical frontliners against those who have abused their power to cut queues and have their family members and workers vaccinated first,” said member of parliament and former deputy minister Ong Kian Ming.


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“Whether or not this queue-cutting phenomenon can be stopped or significantly reduced depends on the competence of the health authorities in individual states, since the decision on who to vaccinate … has been decentralised to the state level.”

Ong said that while Khairy had shown himself to be a very competent minister, he was just one man, adding that the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition was “prepared to cooperate with Khairy on ensuring the successful roll-out of the vaccine”.

Pulmonologist Helmy Haja Mydin, who was vaccinated on Wednesday, described the process as “smooth”.

“There has been some criticism regarding the lack of uptake of vaccines, but I honestly do not expect huge numbers in the first week,” he said. “As with a product ‘adoption curve’, there will be early enthusiasts and early adopters, all the way to the conservatives who would adopt a wait-and-see approach.”

Malaysia is part of the World Health Organization’s Covax Facility, contributing money to help fund vaccine development research in exchange for guaranteed access to a large portfolio of vaccine candidates that would be distributed more equitably. The country is also expected to receive 41.1 million vaccine doses from Britain’s AstraZeneca, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute, and China’s Sinovac Biotech and Cansino Biologics, on top of 6.4 million doses from the Covax programme.