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Our nation is now in the throes of an increasingly serious influenza epidemic. In early December last year, the prime minister’s wife, Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, warned of the seriousness of the influenza threat and called for a large-scale immunization programme.

Since then, the epidemic has grown in leaps and bounds with hundreds of reported cases. With the epidemic spreading, more and more Malaysians have rushed to get vaccinated only to discover that there’re simply not enough vaccines to go around.

The epidemic has once again underlined how unprepared we are for a major health crisis. As usual, bureaucratic inefficiencies and misplaced government priorities are to blame.

In the first place, while the government kept encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, it made no effort to ensure that there were sufficient vaccines to meet demand. Although the health ministry insists there is no shortage, a check with local clinics indicates that the vaccines are largely unavailable in the Klang Valley. Most private clinics say that they are out of stock; some are predicting that fresh supplies won’t be available till at least April.

It is also not available to the general public at government hospitals; those looking for vaccines there are told to go to private clinics. Even people already infected with influenza are being turned away from government hospitals because of a shortage of facilities to treat them.

Private doctors are complaining that supplies promised to them by distributors have been commandeered by the government for use in both government and private hospitals for the police, the army, customs and immigration and VVIPs. In effect, the public is now left entirely to their own devices to stay safe.

While it is understandable that priority be given to first-line defenders and officials performing essential services, it is unfair to leave the population at large at risk. Clearly, our health officials have screwed up big time in not anticipating the surge in demand and preparing for it.

Even now, there seems to be no clear plan to manage the crisis. Confusion abounds. All we see are bureaucratic responses like “directives” to “monitor” the situation and nonsensical talk about “standard operating procedures,” as if all that by itself is going to keep people safe. Headlines like “health ministry keeping an eye on schools linked to influenza outbreak” do not exactly inspire confidence as well. What does “keeping an eye” mean? Is that enough to protect students from contracting the disease? Surely the health ministry can do better than that.

What is worse is that the present arrangement benefits the rich while leaving the poor unprotected. While wealthier Malaysians would have no trouble paying the RM60 – RM150 which is being charged by private doctors for each vaccine, the vast majority of people in the B40 group, especially those with families will not be able to afford it. The chances are they will opt to do without it for financial reasons. Is this fair?

Given that the epidemic is a serious threat to the health of Malaysians, shouldn’t the government take immediate steps to provide free vaccinations at least to vulnerable groups like pregnant women, children under the age of five, adults aged 65 and above, as well as those with health problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease?

Instead of having inane discussions about when to send sick children home from school, shouldn’t the government immediately provide free vaccinations to all school children beginning with those in the worst affected areas?

As well, the government should immediately set up vaccination centres in malls or other convenient locations to service other vulnerable groups.

This is what they do in countries like Canada. It’s not just good politics but good economics as well. After all, providing free vaccinations is a lot cheaper in the long run than treating hundreds of patients in government hospitals.

The government has a clear responsibility to act judiciously to protect the health and welfare of the people. Providing free and timely vaccinations especially at a time when an epidemic is upon us should certainly take priority over new cars for ministers and senior officials or flying cars for that matter.

[Dennis Ignatius |Free Malaysia Today | Kuala Lumpur |14th January 2020]