A false sense of security?: What does being vaccinated really mean day-to-day? 

Last March at this time, Covid-19 was still an “overseas issue”. A year later, we’ve survived one tumultuous year of lockdowns and adjusting to the new normal. This March, the big topic is vaccines, with everyone asking their friends: “Have you been vaccinated yet?” and eagerly anticipating a return to the old normal of sorts now that they’ve been vaccinated. 


But what does getting vaccinated really mean in a day-to-day sense? Are vaccinated people able to return to the “old normal”? Some of those who have already received their first dose of vaccine do seem to be showing something of a lax attitude to health guidelines because they’re now “safe”. But is this really the case? 


Where we stand medically 


University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ) Faculty of Medical Sciences Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine Prof. Neelika Malavige shared that while it is undoubtedly great that we now have vaccines for Covid-19 vaccines that reduce the chance of people dying, it is important to remember that though they drastically reduce the rate of asymptomatic infection, none of them entirely stop this kind of infection. “People who have been fully immunised can still transmit infections to others who have not been vaccinated,” Prof. Malavige explained, adding that the Centre for Disease Control in the US has recently issued guidelines stating that while it is very unlikely for two vaccinated individuals to pass an infection, it is still possible for vaccinated persons to be able to transmit Covid-19 to unvaccinated persons.” 


Prof. Malavige stressed that vaccines are not a one-stop cure, explaining that even in the case of other illnesses, vaccines are rarely 100% effective. “None of the Covid-19 vaccines have claimed to be fully effective,” she said, adding that as of now, only a very small proportion of our population has received their first dose of vaccine, which does not provide maximum immunity (this only comes into play after receiving the second dose which needs to be administered 10 to 12 weeks after the first dose), and that for transmission to significantly reduce, the vast majority of our population, possibly 70% to 80% will need to be immunised, and that even then infectious disease experts are not completely sure how things will unfold. 


“I feel that Covid-19 is here to stay. It’s there in every corner of the earth and thinking we can get rid of it is not reasonable,” Prof. Malavige shared. “If we can prevent severe disease and death then that’s good. We’re only worried about Covid-19 because it causes severe disease and death. There are so many other coronaviruses out in the world that we don’t worry about and whose names people don’t even know because they do not cause severe illness.” 


In Prof. Malavige’s view, both as an expert and from a common-sense standpoint, in the long-term Covid-19 is going to become a part of our lives akin to the common cold, and for this to happen, majority immunisation needs to take place with vulnerable people like the elderly and those with comorbidities being immunised first. 


What does the vaccine mean to us on an emotional level? 


The Covid-19 vaccine, while in vaccine terms and timelines has come together really quickly, in human terms it has taken a while. Collectively, the world’s population has seen a year of disease, uncertainty, and stress with Covid-19 being the chief underlying factor for this distress. Counselling Psychologist Nivendra Uduman explained that this period of distress has left many feeling frustrated and disconnected, especially because of the social isolation caused by the lockdowns and social distancing. 


“This is normal to feel, and because we as human beings are naturally wired to live in groups, to connect and to depend on each other for safety and comfort, the vaccination can sometimes, for some people feel like almost a ‘pass’ to let their guard down,” Uduman said. “Of course, this can have positive impacts on their mental health, where they might feel more secure and safe in interacting with other people, and travelling, but on the other hand, it can cause a disregard for safety that might be troubling. There is a lot of pent-up frustration, anxiety and uncertainty that needs to be addressed, while the vaccine is being made available. We still have to focus on the mental health of people, as now is a time where people are beginning to express what they perhaps might have been suppressing over the last year.” 


Now with the vaccine out and many seeing it as a sign of relief and a return to happier times, Uduman stressed that it is important that people still be mindful of their health and well-being even after receiving the initial vaccination and that adhering to health and safety guidelines is still very important to prevent further transmission of the virus. 


Noting this, Uduman said that the inherent bias that people have of “it won’t happen to us” can sometimes lead to behaviours that are unhelpful in terms of people protecting themselves and those around them. “I think appropriate interventions like effective public messaging and perhaps more stringent implementation of guidelines can prevent people from practising unsafe behaviours. Those who get the vaccine vs. those who don’t get it due to multiple reasons may sometimes cause a sense of inequality, of ‘being left out’ and ‘being neglected’ by those responsible for health and well-being, and this is true of some regions in the country where the vaccine has not reached as of yet which can cause some tension/anger in communities.” 


Going out and about in Colombo: Will the vaccine create a new ‘new normal’? 


One of the many industries heaving a collective sigh of relief now that the vaccine is making the rounds is the events industry. After taking a beating in 2019 with the Easter attacks, 2020 was most certainly an annus horribilis with the toll the pandemic took on events and gatherings of any sort. 


Event Management Association President Roshan Wijeyaratne shared that as an industry, the events and entertainment industry is “definitely happy that the process has started and is happening because we certainly normalcy within our industry. But the issue then becomes that we have 22 million people, and only something like 1.2 million doses, and that too is only the first dose, so it is very important to be aware that even if you do go to an event you might have only less than 50% of people vaccinated so those people who are vaccinated must be mindful of those who aren’t. It is more important than ever to follow all protocols like masks and social distancing for the protection of those people who are not vaccinated.” 


Wijeyaratne stressed that the events and entertainment industry is focusing on the long-term, and for Covid-19 to cease being a threat in the long-term, it’s vital for guidelines to be followed. “As an event management association, we are very serious about following guidelines, and don’t want the Government to just open up everything where people go berserk because if we go into another lockdown, the industry will suffer again.” 


Wjeyaratne explained that as on behalf of the industry, the Event Management Association has been in discussion with the Government to start allowing events like theatre performances and movie screening where 50% seating capacity is strictly followed with visitors sitting in every other seat and for business events like launches and conferences to take place with a maximum guestlist for 250 people because events of this nature are professional and see limited physical interaction with guests by default. 


“One of the biggest issues we have is that there a section of people violating guidelines, not just in terms of guests, but venues that have function who have found a loophole in guidelines and are using this to their advantage, Wijeyaratne said, adding: “What we should be mindful about is a third wave. We managed our first wave successfully, but we messed up the second wave. We need to worry about the third wave because we can’t assume that ‘we’re not going to get in trouble because we personally are vaccinated and so to hell with the rest’. You have to be mindful and responsible.” 


As always through this pandemic, responsibility is the order of the day 


With vaccines giving some of the immunised a false sense of security and a predisposition to ignore rules, Wijeyaratne said that guests at events and the immunised will need to be responsible in how they approach their day-to-day lives and how they approach and interact with the people around them. 


“Some will definitely not take guidelines seriously,” Wijeyaratne said. “But we need to educate the public. We need to use the media, TV and so on and educate people on how they can still carry the virus after vaccination, how other people can be affected by their actions and how to control this impact. There needs to be a system to educate people on because there are some who are very ignorant on the topic.”