Vaccines don't mean you can't infect others
'Don't worry, I already received my first vaccination shot [against Covid-19]. I won't be infected," the taxi driver told me confidently, almost in a carefree manner, when I asked him to put his face-mask on.
The taxi driver initially hesitated, saying the mask made him feel uncomfortable.
From the look of him, he didn't seem to be in his 60s -- the age range that would put him on the vaccine priority list. He claimed taxi drivers are considered a high-risk group. I am not aware of this information. But no other taxi driver I've met in the past few weeks has received a shot.
It was unclear how he received his first shot or if he got any shot at all. But it was clear he misunderstood the function of vaccines which is to lower the transmission risk to others even if one has completed the two-shot requirement. He wrongly believed he could resume the old-normal lifestyle while the rest of the country still faces restrictions.
As I said, there is no guarantee that vaccination will shield anyone 100% from the virus. A vaccinated person is still advised to wear a face-mask, maintain social distancing in public and when mixing with unvaccinated people, especially those with low immunity.
Look at Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob who was confirmed yesterday to have tested positive. He was among several ministers who have received their first shot. I'm not discussing whether he was directly infected at the Thong Lor entertainment venue or not, as the timeline is still confidential. But it's clear that vaccinated people still have to be careful and considerate.
According to The New York Times, as of April 6, more than 678 million vaccine doses had been administered worldwide. Israel has the highest rate of vaccinated people in the world, with 59% of the population having had first jabs with 55% fully vaccinated. With the most infections in the world, the US has administered over 167 million doses and 32% of its population have been vaccinated, with 19% fully vaccinated. In Asia, Singapore has vaccinated 19% of its people. Myanmar has given jabs to 0.7%, with no one fully vaccinated. Cambodia has given shots to 1.4% with 0.4% fully vaccinated.
But take a look at Thailand. It's reported that only 0.4% of the population, including top brass and policymakers, have been vaccinated. The number of fully vaccinated people is miniscule at just 0.1%. The taxi driver is in the minority at less than 1%, meaning several million more could be infected if people are careless. This does not bode well for the government's plan to welcome tourists to save the economy.
This mindset of being too casual with the rules during the third wave of infections -- or, possibly, even a fourth or fifth -- doesn't surprise me. Exactly one year ago this week, I self-quarantined for two weeks and watched daily press conferences giving updates on the number of new infections during the first lockdown which had been delayed until infections soared due to the government's false sense of confidence.
One year on, we still see the same pattern: an outbreak resulting from lax measures and then a knee-jerk reaction, namely proactive screening and a delayed shutdown. This third wave isn't so different. Many people, both the public and officials, ignored social distancing rules at clubs and lounges, resulting in 118 infections and 934 more tested in the Thong Lor cluster.
The knee-jerk reaction? A two-week closure of 196 entertainment venues, including pubs and lounges, in Watthana, Klong Toey and Bang Khae districts until April 19. As if people don't travel across districts to work or hang out! Apart from the controversial business-as-usual entertainment venues and big events like concerts, people have also questioned the dubious allocation of the vaccines. Many medical staffers, especially those on the front lines like nurses, haven't received a shot.
Last month, the army insisted on early vaccinations for caddies (assistants at golf courses) because they work for retired top brass. And now, 4,200 doses are being allocated to people in the Thong Lor area.
Instead of being punished, those breaking the rules are getting rewarded. Only in this country do those who don't follow the rules get vaccinated first while those who need jabs the most, including doctors and nurses, have to wait. Many doctors and nurses I know have not yet been vaccinated.
In a bid to attract tourists, the government has tried to shorten the quarantine period for those who have received a jab. But it's now clear that vaccination doesn't guarantee anything and the majority of people in this country don't even know when a vaccine will be available for them. I only hope the government will be more sensible by speeding up its vaccine purchases. Most importantly, I hope vaccinated people are informed that they are not totally virus-free.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.