At this time last year, the world was in the throes of fear and panic on account of the rapid spread of COVID-19 pandemic. It was a disease not known before, and it raged through the world infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands. As countries hastened to impose cautionary restrictions to the point of total lockdown in some places, research laboratories around the globe rushed into a hysterical race to find a cure for the disease and a vaccine against it. People around the world ardently hoped a vaccine or cure would be found so they would get it at the first chance possible. There was much talk about past epidemics, of the millions of lives lost to them and the worldwide terror they had incited until scientists were able to produce vaccines and cures that harnessed them. Plague, malaria, and cholera are now under control, tame diseases with accessible cures. The seasonal flu which is caused by a virus known to mutate every year is harnessed through vaccines that get modified every season to keep up with its mutations; it is no longer the notorious killer it started as.
Last year, 2020, went by slowly and depressively as we awaited the results of the international vaccine race. Before yearend a few vaccines had been created, tested for the short term, and granted “emergency approval” for production and distribution. The World Health Organisation WHO said that in view of the spread of COVID-19 and the high numbers of cases and deaths, the world did not have the luxury of waiting for long term testing of vaccines; such testing, WHO said, would take no less than two more years. It was thus up to individual countries, WHO said, to decide about vaccine rollout, and to set the priority sectors of the population who would be vaccinated in succession.
Egypt followed the line recommended by WHO; the Egyptian Ministry of Health started vaccinating its “white army”, the medical staff at the frontline of battling COVID-19, since they are the most at risk of infection. On their heels would come the elderly and those who suffer from chronic diseases, especially those that affect the immune system. The vaccine rollout would proceed to reach its target of covering the entire population, but this hinges on the volume of vaccine supply worldwide, and on Egypt’s capacity to procure sufficient doses amid fierce competition by the richer and producer countries.
At the beginning of this month, the Egyptian Ministry of Health launched its website https://egcovac.mohp.gov.eg/ for individuals to register themselves as candidates for the COVID-19 vaccine; they would be shortlisted into three groups according to the priority announced by the Ministry. Surprisingly, the number of individuals who registered was much lower than expected, meaning many were hesitant, if not downright suspicious of the vaccine. Queries and controversy dominated the media and social media, but the question now was not: “Will you take the vaccine?” but “Have you registered [on the Ministry of Health’s website] for vaccination?” Judging by all the discussions I have been part of, I can clearly see that suspicions run very high regarding alleged adverse effects by the vaccine. Neither the efforts of WHO or those of Egypt’s Health Ministry have been able to calm public fears of alleged vaccine side effects. Nor have the very high rates of effectiveness of the vaccine in the short term been able to assuage fears of unforeseen long term effects.
Admittedly, the media has played a crucial, if unintended, role in raising public fears vis-à-vis COVID-19 vaccine. Local and international shows alike have been featuring prominent experts and doctors who differ over the urgency of vaccination; they are themselves divided between rejecting the idea of taking the vaccine, or insisting it should be taken. Confused viewers are left to decide for themselves, but have no clue whether it is better to take the vaccine and be safe from COVID-19 or to refrain from vaccination and ensure they are not liable to future adverse effects. But the frightful aspect of this situation is the volume of video footage on social media which feature doctors or experts who, for the purpose of credibility, cite their names, degrees and the places they work at, then go on to propagate their views of coronavirus, its creation, spread, and the production and rollout of vaccines to protect against it. Many of these views present horrific information that can only be born of conspiracy theory and which foster destructive, perilous attitudes.
The outcome is that Egyptians need to figure out the vaccine question for themselves, that is unless they are among those whose vaccination is mandatory, such as the medical staff. There will remain, however, one detail likely to have an impact on events or decisions: there is talk about plans to restrict international travel to those who get the vaccine. The purpose is to restrict the spread of coronavirus. Will it be the era of “corona passport … passcode to free movement”? But this warrants another editorial.
12 March 2021