Public policy analysts believe there is a case for low-paid workers to be prioritised for the third phase of Malaysia’s National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme over concerns that uneven vaccination rate across the population could widen existing socioeconomic gaps. The disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on low-wage workers and other economically vulnerable groups, given the limited supply of vaccines, have fuelled ethical questions around how the government determines who should be next in line to get the shots, particularly in the third stage of the immunisation plan.

The Ministry of Science, Innovation and Technology (MOSTI), which is leading the massive effort to vaccinate up to 70 per cent of the population by the same month next year, has based a system on recommendations made by the World Health Organisation, placing healthcare workers in the first phase followed by high risk groups like the elderly or those with chronic diseases.

“The World Health Organisation recommends that prioritisation should be based on risk of acquiring and transmitting infection, groups that are at significantly high risk of severe disease or death, essential workers for the critical functioning of the state and vaccine production and distribution,” said Tricia Yeoh, chief executive of public policy think tank IDEAS. Malaysia received its first batch of vaccines on February 21 with the initial phase of the programme officially rolling out from February 24. The second phase is expected to begin from April.

MOSTI Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the third phase, from May onwards, will involve vaccination of groups that are of lower risk or relatively healthy adults. But here the programme lacks clarity. Khairy said the government aims to vaccinate at least 80 per cent of the country’s 33 million population within a year, which means the third stage would likely involve a massive mobilisation effort to inoculate millions.

Singapore-based think tank ISEAS estimates that the number of Malaysian jobs unable to be performed at home is 64.5 per cent, with over half of jobs likely to be low-skilled and requiring a high level of proximity if adjusted for internet access, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus. “Jobs that require physical presence should be prioritised over jobs that do not,” Yeoh said. “Further, the WHO also urges national equity considerations…this indicates that economically vulnerable groups ought to be prioritised since not being vaccinated would actually threaten their ability to work,” she added. Analysts have stressed that how the state determines which groups get precedent must be scientifically or data-driven.

Meanwhile, Malaysia today took delivery of the Sinovac vaccine, almost a week after it received the first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The envirotainer ― a temperature-controlled container ― with 200 litres of the vaccine arrived at at the KL International Airport from Beijing in a Malaysia Airlines Airbus 330-300 aircraft.


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