Vaccine utilitarianism

Vaccination is so far the best and immediate solution to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has therefore become the predominant, if not the only, solution many countries rely on. However, in a context where there is a global shortage of vaccines and also manufacturing delays, the strategy employed to administer the vaccine too plays a pivotal role.

Sri Lanka’s vaccination drive has been criticised on many occasions, mainly owing to the lack of organisation, interferences by various officials and persons of power, and also the public’s unwillingness to accept the factors that make certain groups priority.

It all started in the first stage of the vaccination drive, which came under fire for certain powerful figures trying to get their followers and acquaintances vaccinated outside the priority list. The Moratuwa Mayor’s unwarranted interferences last month is proof that such interferences have not stopped, and the statement he made during the brawl with the health authorities that similar unofficial priority lists are operative in certain other districts, is alarming.

Such interferences may be unavoidable to a certain extent. However, what is under the complete control of the Government and the health authorities is the official priority list. Unfortunately, media reports that the vaccine was given to selected groups while making the public wait unfairly at certain public hospitals suggest that the official priority lists too are rather disorganised.

The public understanding their responsibilities concerning getting the vaccine is also of great importance. That is also another questionable aspect that was raised in light of the recent incident where a considerable number of Colombo-based persons allegedly travelled to Galle to get vaccinated.

Where we are with the vaccination drive, in this context, raises concerns. However, there is no other option but to continue, streamline, and expedite the drive, as the vaccine is still the best solution experts have come up with, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as local prominent figures such as President Gotabaya Rajapkasa and the local medical community have also stressed this.

The Government has expressed confidence that by the end of this year, Sri Lanka would be able to import the number of vaccine doses it needs urgently. Recently, it was reported that the Government is looking into manufacturing the vaccines within the country, which is an admirable move in a context where obtaining the vaccines, despite the promises made by various vaccine manufacturing nations, is also in an uncertain status.

Continuing the vaccination drive properly in the coming few months is one of the biggest challenges the Government will face; however, rectifying the aforesaid loopholes and putting an end to undue interferences is a much bigger challenge.

As The Morning has emphasised before, having the required number of doses is not the only factor that decides the vaccination drive’s success; it also largely depends on how it is managed, which includes identifying what the immediate steps are. On many occasions in the recent past, matters such as giving the vaccine to expectant mothers and schoolchildren, administering two different types of vaccines as the first and second doses, and determining the interval between doses, were discussed. On 8 June, the health authorities said that the second dose can be delayed up to six months, as opposed to the four-week interval announced before.

As both local and global experts have claimed, the first dose boosts a person’s immunity to a considerable degree, and some experts have even ruled out the necessity of a second dose. Also, taking this into account, many countries have opted to give the first dose to its citizens as an immediate step.

How long can the second dose be delayed is an important matter that needs to be looked at. However, as a country that has not been able to give at least the first dose to a majority of its citizens and is struggling to procure adequate doses, perhaps Sri Lanka too needs to reconsider which approach suits us best – vaccinating a limited a number of people by giving both doses, or vaccinating a considerably large number of people by giving them the first dose as and when Sri Lanka receives the vaccines.

Several countries such as Russia, China, and Japan have promised to provide vaccines to Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka is expected to benefit from the US’ recently announced global vaccine donation programme as well. In such a context, adopting an approach that benefits a majority of the public would be wisest.