By Louis Kang
LAST December 8, Margaret Keenan became the first person in the United Kingdom to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in the country. She took her second dose three weeks later, having celebrated her 91st birthday in between shots.
Her vaccination marked the start of the largest inoculation exercise the UK has ever seen in modern times. Fast forward some eight months later, 88 per cent of the population has received its first dose and 66.8 per cent fully vaccinated as of July 19.
Last July 19 is also the day where the UK lifted strict restrictions imposed earlier to curb the spread of Covid-19, with the media touting it as “Freedom Day” as the Brits took steps towards going back to life pre-coronavirus, such as doing away with the mandatory mask rule or allowing theatres to open with full stalls again.
But make no mistake. New infections in the UK have not abated – it is in fact climbing over the past weeks with 46,558 cases reported on July 20. Over the last seven days prior, 332,068 new cases were reported, a rise of a whopping 40.7 per cent over the previous period.
By comparison, Malaysia saw 12,366 new infections on July 20, despite a population of around half the size of the UK. Between June 1 and July 19, 950,000 new infections were reported in the UK. In other words, the country recorded more positive cases over that 49-day period than the cumulative number of infections in Malaysia, which stood at just over 900,000, since the start of the pandemic.
The UK government has attributed the re-opening of the economy to three key factors: the low death rate due to Covid-19, the high vaccination rate in the country and the strain on the economy from a prolonged lockdown.
The UK’s Covid-19 death rate stood at 0.4 per 100,000 people, which is one of the lowest in the world. Ninety-six deaths were reported on July 20, a far cry from the close to 2,000 deaths a day in late January. The current Covid-19 death rate in the UK is similar to the one caused by the common flu.
The vaccination rate is also fast-climbing with over two-thirds of its people having received two doses, and almost 90 per cent having at least one dose. More importantly, the lockdown is driven by the need to keep the UK economy above water.
Last year, its economy contracted by 9.9 per cent, the largest dip in the country’s 300-year history. In the first quarter of this year, its GDP shrunk by a further 1.5 per cent, costing the country to lose trillions in pounds.
This is why the UK government took the bold gamble in reopening its economy despite the raging infection number. It boils down to the lesser of the two evils: choosing to live with a pandemic where the death rate is similar to that of the common flu or having the economy further choked with prolonged lockdowns.
The UK experience should provide valuable lessons for other countries including Malaysia. As one of Europe’s largest economies gets fired up again with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions this week, all eyes will be peeled to how the country walks the lives-livelihood tightrope in the weeks and months to come.
In Malaysia, our daily new infections have also spiked over the past weeks as we breach the five-figure mark with numbers that stubbornly defy gravity. But if it’s any consolation, the overwhelming number of the cases were classified as Category 1 and 2, meaning the patients either had no or mild symptoms.
As of July 20, some 44 per cent of the adult population had received their first dose of the vaccine, with some 20 per cent being fully vaccinated. While being fully vaccinated is no guarantee that the person will not be infected or spread the disease to others, it would help considerably to reduce the side-effects, and deaths, especially among the high-risk groups.
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has said that the country should finish vaccinating its entire eligible adult population by October. Going by some estimates, the target could even be reached before then.
Vaccination is no silver bullet in ending the pandemic but it is key for Malaysia and other countries to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic days, insofar as economic activities are concerned.
With the National Recovery Plan now in motion, it is time for us to prepare for the eventual re-opening of the economy and reclaim the life that has eluded us over the past 18 months.