A light at the end of the tunnel
We have entered a phase where we are beginning to see the light at the end of this Coronavirus tunnel. With the release and delivery of vaccines, people are slowly achieving the immunity needed against COVID-19 that has led the world to a halt. Of course, as of now, only those countries who can afford to purchase the vaccine are vaccinating their population, which means that there is still some time left until the countries that cannot afford the vaccine can begin vaccinating.
Who should we prioritize?
Of the countries that are vaccinating, each of them have established different vaccination goals and have prioritized different groups of people to vaccinate first. Most countries have begun their initiatives by vaccinating essential workers (such as medical professionals) and people over 65 first. Indonesia is one of the few, if not the only country, who has begun vaccinating young people first. So, where should we really begin?
As we become older, our immune system deteriorates with time. It becomes weaker and as a result, we become more susceptible to diseases. This is one of the reasons why older people have been affected more by COVID-19 than others. In fact, out of the 421,378 deaths caused by COVID-19 in January in the USA, around 81% were over 65. Because they are the most vulnerable and most at risk of having negative effects to the virus, they should be the ones who get vaccinated first.
A weak immune system also means that the body's response to a vaccine might be stronger, such as exhibiting more of the side effects/symptoms that the vaccine might induce. While this might seem like a counterargument, even if getting the vaccine might not lead to complete immunization, it would minimize the degree of the disease, thus making the virus’ effect on the body weaker. Furthermore, having a weaker immune system is also a reason why, as of now, many European countries are advising people over 65 years not to get the AstraZeneca vaccine. Nations such as Germany and Spain want to certify that the vaccine is safe, so they are waiting to receive test results conducted in the United States, where they are testing the effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine on people aged 65 and above.
One important thing to note about the COVID-19 vaccines is that it is still unknown if a vaccinated person is able to spread the virus to other people. Yet, because of the spread of misinformation and assumptions made, many people might believe that getting vaccinated means they cannot spread the virus, and as a result, they become less cautious and strict with the rules imposed. Vaccinated people might see having the vaccine as a chance to meet more people and wear masks less frequently. In general, young people are more likely to go outside, or to travel for work, while older people are less likely to do so as they might be retired and do not need to leave the house.
What does this mean then?
Even if both age groups might be misinformed about the possibility of spreading the virus when vaccinated, older people would be less likely to spread it, as they might move around less frequently. Instead, young people might see their vaccination as a free pass and become more lenient with the rules causing the virus to continue spreading even when vaccinated.
Since young people are less at risk and are in the workforce, they are more likely to spread COVID-19. Thus, vaccinating them first might slow the spread of the virus, which is one of Indonesia’s reasons for starting the programme from people aged 18 to 59 first. Of course, this goes against what was stated earlier, which was that it is not certain that getting the vaccine means that you will not spread it, making this argument not entirely valid. This is why other nations have criticized Indonesia since they see their reasoning as more of a cover up for the government prioritizing the economy more than its people’s health.
Indonesia has also taken into consideration its population demographics to justify its decision. Indonesia’s Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin explained that Indonesia needs to vaccinate around 67% of its population to achieve herd immunity. As of today, 15 to 65 age groups account for 68% of the population, meaning that to achieve herd immunity quickly, they believe it is best to begin by vaccinating the young first.
Prioritizing a country’s economy over the health of its people has been a debate criticised by many since the start of the pandemic, such as when Sweden wanted to achieve herd immunity and the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed the closing of schools and businesses in March 2020. Yet, people might still see it as an important argument to consider because saving the economy might save more lives in the long run as it could prevent people from losing their jobs and not earning enough money to live.
Let’s get back to the vaccines
Vaccinating young people first would permit a quicker reopening of businesses and workplaces as they would no longer be at risk of contracting the virus and getting sick. Fithra Faisal Hastiadi, an economist at the University of Indonesia, argues that vaccinating the young first is not about prioritizing the economy as she believes “public health is a function of the economy.” This is especially relevant when the demographics of a country like Indonesia are primarily made of the working population. So, in this case, maintaining the majority of the population — who happen to be people that work — healthy is a way to make sure that the country will be able to function properly in the future.
Hopefully, the question of who we should vaccinate first will not be one we will have to ask for much longer as with more vaccines being approved and more locations being used to vaccinate, there will be a greater and faster rate of supply that will satisfy the high demand for the vaccines.
The pandemic has revealed to us the priorities of different nations; some might choose to prioritize the lives of people depending on their age and their working situation, while others might choose to prioritize the economy altogether, putting us in the uncomfortable position of wondering, which government truly has its people’s health at heart?
[P/S. Details of this article were accurate at the time of publication]