Hope is rising in Malaysia and around the world as COVID-19 vaccinations get underway. Our new survey of 5,916 Malaysians also reveals that attitudes toward the virus are changing for the better, reflecting more understanding about vaccines and the severity of the disease.
We have seen an encouraging trend towards more people wanting to get vaccinated against COVID-19. A World Economic Forum-Ipsos study last August indicated two out of three people in Malaysia were uncertain about being immunized. A Malaysian government survey published in late December shows encouraging progress among the population regarding their perception of immunization, with two thirds of people in Malaysia saying yes to COVID-19 vaccines.
Our latest survey also shows progress in the right direction, with nearly three out of five respondents willing to get the vaccine and only a small fraction (6 percent) of people in Malaysia saying they would not.
People primarily want to know if the vaccines are safe, how to access the immunization services and if they are halal. Addressing these concerns and other questions to build trust and acceptance is of the utmost importance. Our best chance of preventing severe disease and deaths from COVID-19 in Malaysia lies in immunizing approximately 80 percent of the population in the next 12 months.
Evidence in Malaysia and abroad tells us that having enough vaccines is only part of the solution to contain and slow the spread of a disease. A successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign also depends on people being comfortable and confident to take the vaccines when they are offered.
We must make sure everyone can easily share their concerns and feel listened to. Our survey helps us to understand what people know, what information they need and how they would like to receive it.
We have seen a dramatic and important shift in knowledge and attitudes about COVID-19 among the people in Malaysia. Almost all (99 percent) Malaysians believe that the virus is “very dangerous” or “dangerous” whereas mid last year, nearly four out of five people (78 percent) thought the virus was “not too dangerous”.
This shift in attitudes plays a big role in helping to stop the spread of the disease. It means more people are inclined to keep wearing masks, maintain physical distance and take other precautions, including receiving the vaccine, to keep themselves, their families, friends and colleagues safe.
Results also show that people still wish to know more about COVID-19 symptoms and the risk of catching the virus and are looking for comprehensive and reliable information about the vaccines and treatments that are currently being developed.
Simple, clear, timely and empathic communication that acknowledges what we do and do not know can help boost people's trust in health authorities, which in turn can positively influence their willingness to be vaccinated.
Understanding who the trusted sources are in providing public health advice is vital. We may be living in an instant digital and social media era, but more than one in five people said that they still prefer to get their information from real people, face-to-face. This finding reinforces the important role of Red Crescent volunteers, our broad civil society and health workers in helping to reassure people who are concerned about the vaccine or seeking more information. Two-way conversation is crucial to building accurate understanding while allaying fears.
It’s valuable to know that the most trusted sources of information in the country are the Malaysian Government, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Malaysian Red Crescent. Frontline workers and volunteers are also among the most trusted sources and they deserve our endless gratitude. It must not be underestimated how essential their role is in providing people with lifesaving first aid, early diagnosis and treatment. Having them as a friendly, listening ear and someone who can provide critical, life-saving information can make a world of difference.
Right now, both WHO and Malaysian Red Crescent are supporting the government in preparation for the national vaccine rollout. Vaccinations provide hope but they are not a stand-alone solution. Even once vaccinated, we still need to practice all preventive public health and social measures to keep ourselves protected for the foreseeable future. The perils of COVID-19 will only be overcome when everyone is safe.
It is completely understandable that in this time of great uncertainty, the public has questions and concerns about the virus and the vaccines, and it is our responsibility to provide clarity and answers and continue to build trust in immunization as we move forward.
Her Highness Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz Binti Almarhum Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah is the national chairperson of Malaysian Red Crescent. Lo Ying-Ru Jacqueline is head of mission and WHO representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore.