OPINION – Close to the finish line

One year since the pandemic reached our city, the first Covid-19 jabs are finally here; some 100,000 Sinopharm vaccines were delivered this Saturday signalling the rollout of the general inoculation plan for the whole local population.

Considering that two shots are required for the maximum immunity effect, the received doses can already provide protection to some 50,000 residents, almost 7 percent of the city’s almost 650,000 residents.

Since local authorities purchased a total of 1.2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Sinopharm, BioNTech and AstraZeneca, the small size of the city and of its population should work as an advantage, allowing for a quick storage, distribution and vaccination process.

Sinopharm vaccines also do not require extremely cold storage temperatures and, according to Phase III clinical trials, show a near-80 percent efficacy rate.

All in all, their arrival is great news right before the start of the Year of the Ox.

BioNTech jabs are also expected to arrive before March, and AstraZeneca vaccines are set to arrive in June.

So, we currently have the all the bricks, we just need to get down to it and build the fort. However, some challenges still remain that prevent the process from being a smooth one.

Firstly, we have to address the undeniable fact that many residents are still deeply suspicious of the safety of the vaccines or their possible side effects.

Whether or not those fears are baseless, residents are entitled to have them and it is up to health authorities to clearly and patiently assure residents of the safety of the treatment.

There is a deluge of dubious and ‘fake’ online reports of serious side effects or even fatalities connected to Covid-19 vaccination that have intensified the normal concerns anyone would have towards such a new scientific development.

Most residents do not doubt the efficiency of the vaccine itself, but they have a more ‘wait and see’ approach when it comes to vaccination.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has still to approve the use of Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines despite the steady stream of cases in the city.

Strangely enough, a Hong Kong government health advisor has defended the city’s vaccine approval process, saying the SAR won’t cut corners, and was recently quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying that Hong Kong authorities “would not sacrifice safety for the sake of speed” indicating that neither Sinovac nor Sinopharm had provided Phase III data to either Hong Kong or Macau.

These are all issues local authorities will have to patiently clarify to avoid gaslighting residents and pushing them to make a decision. The decision to make vaccination available for free and on a voluntary basis for all residents was already an extremely positive step for this necessary policy to be accepted.

This weekend, Health Bureau Director Lei Chin Ion assured he would get the first jab himself next Tuesday so as to ease public concerns.

These are all positive signs, and as more and more people get vaccinated, anxiety about the process will likely fade away.

In any case, in the ‘new normal’ vaccination will likely become a basic requirement for travel and even employment, therefore populations will ultimately have to end up accepting it.

Another challenge will be deciding on the groups who will get the vaccine first.

Local authorities have rightly decided that the first to receive the jabs will be frontline workers – health workers, firefighters, police officers, and drivers for essential goods transport.

One priority group that has yet to be fully clarified is ‘those who need to travel to high-risk Covid-19 areas will be among the first to be vaccinated’.

In what circumstances people would be allowed to be vaccinated when travelling to such high-risk areas? For a family reunion? Work? We know local non-residents will be allowed to receive the vaccination, but will mainland workers who regularly cross the border be prioritised?

It is known that local Delegates of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and members of the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) have already received jabs in preparation for the annual political events in Beijing that will take place around March.

Cases of dubious ‘priority vaccinations’ or wasted vaccines have been aplenty all over the world, and a clear vaccination plan needs to be defined and explained to avoid any misunderstandings that may undermine its legitimacy.

Macau is a touristic city and its economy desperately needs to recover, so will hotel and casino workers be vaccinated first?

Sinopharm is set to only announce their Phase-III data on elderly and juvenile groups around the Chinese New Year holidays, and authorities have already indicated that vaccination for people over 60 is not recommended, so it is still unclear how elderly groups will be protected.

At any rate, persistent efforts have thankfully been able to contain the further spread of Covid-19, as locally confirmed cases are only 48. The latest reported case last week was a local resident under quarantine who had travelled from Portugal, so the city is not in the same urgent situation many international regions are at present.

Macau can already see the finishing line, we just need to make sure we don’t stumble along the way.

[MNA Editor-in-Chief]