When the country first began mobilising its civil service in response to the Covid-19 outbreak last year, public feedback was varied. For years, if not decades, government officials had had a chequered reputation with hard workers who show initiative portrayed as the stuff of myths alongside unicorns and fairies.
The thought of such a workforce providing the bulk of manpower for the national crisis response may well have raised eyebrows among those who have had multiple bad experiences with bureaucratic red tape and the familiar sight of only two out of 20 counters open for business.
But while the national response to the Covid-19 crisis has by no means been perfect, at least one group of frontliners should be recognised for their efforts in keeping the virus at bay.
The National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, known by its acronym PICK, has taken its share of criticism since it was rolled out in February. From complaints over the rate of vaccination to questions over supply, it has come under fire from multiple quarters, from the man on the street to former government leaders.
The most recent snafu was over the website for AstraZeneca registration, which among others would not allow applicants to select their state despite multiple attempts to refresh the page. It was also riddled with other technical issues which left many disappointed and frustrated at the end of the day.
The first-come, first-served registration for the AstraZeneca jab was opened twice before PICK coordinating minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced that the vaccine would be reinstated under the mainstream programme: on May 2 and May 26.
Both times, I was among the hundreds of thousands hoping to book a spot. On May 2, my sisters and I along with our spouses and my brother signed up for ourselves, unsure of the side effects but confident that any vaccine was better than none. On May 26, seeing as none of us had died, we signed up on behalf of our parents.
Both times, we had the same problem with the website which refused to let us select our state no matter how many times we refreshed or changed devices. Eventually we got through, although many others we knew who were also trying did not.
But while the technical front of our vaccination programme leaves much to be desired, the human front – arguably the more important – needs to be commended.
Our appointments were at the World Trade Centre (WTC) in Kuala Lumpur: a huge venue with huge potential for mishaps and problems. But nothing of the sort occurred while we were there; on the contrary, we were greatly impressed by the initiative and attitudes shown by the staff, from the police and armed forces personnel who greeted us at the entrance and waved us towards our stations, to the doctors and nurses who administered our jabs.
From the start, things were orderly and well managed. The staff stationed at each stage of the vaccination procedure anticipated all of our questions, guiding us on where to go and what to do before we even had time to feel lost. They were also polite, cheerful and encouraging – a far cry from what I had come to expect of the civil service throughout the years.
Our appointments were all in the evening, which meant that many of the personnel at WTC had likely been there the whole day. Certainly the doctor who administered my jab looked as if she hadn’t slept well for weeks. I wanted to ask how long she had been sitting there, giving shot after shot of vaccine to people she would likely never see again – a thankless job apart from the cursory acknowledgement that she might or might not receive as recipients eager to get the whole thing over and done with hurried off to the next stage.
But as far as I could tell, they were all patient and professional, a difficult combination to achieve when dealing with huge numbers of mostly worried people hoping for a chance against a virus that has killed millions around the world.
Our parents had their jabs on Tuesday. Their appointments were at WTC as well, but as they were considered senior citizens, we were keen to see how the procedure would go for them.
From beginning to end, everything went smoothly. The health workers were cheerful and engaging and worked hard to assure the older people that things would be all right. The medical worker who attended to my father, in particular, was so sunny that it was difficult to believe she was administering a vaccine in the midst of a global pandemic.
I don’t know what her name was, but she was young, in her 20s, and on loan, so to speak, from Tung Shin Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. She was born in Melaka and had not gone home to see her family since the interstate travel ban was imposed.
To be young and away from home and family is nothing new. Many of us did it or are doing it for college and university or work purposes, depending on which stage of life we are at. But not many of us can say that we did so at a time of worldwide crisis, as thousands in the country were falling sick and tens were dying on a daily basis.
Not many of us, when we were young and away from home, spent our days sitting in a cubicle or at a makeshift table, wearing personal protective equipment, filling syringe after syringe with potentially life-saving vaccines and administering them to hundreds if not thousands of people who would remember nothing of us once they left the building.
Too often, we think of healthcare personnel as faceless figures only needed in times of crisis. No one sees a doctor or nurse unless something is wrong or at the very least out of the ordinary.
But my hope for the workers at the vaccination centres around the country is that they will be seen as individuals who are spending long, hard, dangerous hours tending to the needs of the nation at a time of severe difficulty. Tending, and tending well.
Malaysia has a long way to go in so many areas. But if we can hang on to the same spirit we have shown at our vaccination centres so far, there is no reason not to believe that unicorns and fairies may one day greet us at all government facilities as well.