TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Celebrity participation and threats of prosecution are not effective ways to encourage public participation in the Covid-19 vaccination program. This will only lead to more opposition.
THE start of a vaccination program is clearly not a victory that needs to be celebrated. The endeavor to bring about herd immunity is only the initial step to ending the Covid-19 pandemic, which has now lasted for almost a year. The government should reduce unnecessary ceremonies and focus on ensuring that the mass vaccination program progresses smoothly.
Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination program began on Wednesday, January 13, with President Joko Widodo being given the Sinovac vaccine. The procession at the State Palace was followed by similar events for governors, regents and mayors in the regions. These programs resembled a celebration that almost certainly will give people a false sense of security.
Since the vaccine arrived from China in December last year, the government has treated it like the ultimate savior. Welcoming ceremonies were held at the airport. The distribution of the vaccine to the regions from the Bio Farma laboratory in Bandung was accompanied by waving flags and confetti.
However, while these celebrations were going ahead, the Sinovac vaccine had still not been granted an emergency use permit by the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM). The agency only gave the green light last week after the timing of the President's first vaccination was announced. A few days beforehand, the Indonesian Ulemas Council declared the Sinovac vaccine to be halal (permissible in Islamic law).
The noisy celebrations of the vaccination program were also inappropriate because of the contrast with the dire situation on the ground. The virus is increasingly spreading out of control. Active cases continue to increase after the Christmas and New Year holidays. Hospitals in a number of cities have no spare beds. Health care workers are overwhelmed. The death rate is also increasing. The government even limited people's movement in Java and Bali on January 11-25.
It is possible that the government views these ceremonies as a way to persuade the people to accept vaccination. Recently opposition has frequently been expressed by certain groups that doubt the efficacy and safety of the Sinovac vaccine. This type of skepticism will not be overcome by appearances from celebrities like Raffi Ahmad or Noah singer Ariel.
Conversely, threatening those who refuse to be vaccinated with prosecution will also not be effective. The statement by Deputy Minister for Justice and Human Rights Edward O.S. Hiariej about people refusing to be vaccinated being charged with violating the Quarantine Law was counterproductive. This kind of formal legal approach could trigger antipathy and more rejection.
The public must be reassured through transparent explanations supported by credible data. Only this way will public trust be built and will everybody be prepared to be vaccinated. A cautious and sympathetic vaccination information campaign also needs to be rolled out at the same time.
Much of the public suspicion about the quality of the Sinovac vaccine used for the initial phase of vaccination has been triggered by confusion. Misinformation has spread about the announcement of the 65.3 percent efficacy of Sinovac. Although this is above World Health Organization (WHO) standards, this efficacy value is less than that of a number of other vaccines. Therefore, the BPOM must explain the procedure of issuing the emergency use permit and the considerations used. There must be no suspicion that the BPOM permit was issued because the timing of Jokowi's vaccination had already been announced.
The government must also carefully explain the availability of the vaccine. Indonesia needs at least 360 million vaccine doses in order to inject 180 million people twice. This total is two-thirds of the total population, which is the minimum needed to bring about herd immunity. To banish any doubts, the contract for the supply of all of Indonesia's vaccine needs and the clauses within it need to be published, especially if there are requests that lead to questions being asked such as the guarantee of no prosecutions.
The other big question that the government needs to answer is the guarantee that the vaccine will be distributed to remote areas of this nation. Without a satisfactory cold chain to keep the vaccine at the necessary low temperatures, the program will descend into chaos. There is nothing wrong with the government asking private companies that have the necessary capacity and infrastructure to assist with the distribution. Such involvement of the private sector will need to be done properly taking the public interest into consideration.
The success of the Covid-19 mass vaccination campaign will be a step forward in the battle to end this pandemic. The stakes are too high for this program to fail to meet its target. Building public trust is the key to ensuring widespread support.
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