Sunday, October 24, 2021

Saudi health expert says vaccines a necessity, not a luxury

Vaccine hesitancy in Saudi has been blamed on conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine activists who flood social media feeds.

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Saudi Arabia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout has inoculated more than 25% of the kingdom’s population, and health experts have said that in a bid to return to normal life in the fight against Covid, vaccines are a necessity not a luxury.

“Many have come to realise that life is somewhat back to normal with prayers resumed at mosques and people returning to coffee shops. They felt the sense of urgency and rushed to take the vaccine. We can’t afford another hit,” infectious disease consultant Dr Nezar Bahabri told Arab News.

“The vaccines are the only way to return to our normal lives.”

After the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, Saudi Arabia protected its health system and prevented the spread of the virus by imposing flight bans, lockdowns, curfews and making social distancing and the wearing of masks mandatory. The case count never made it past 5,000 cases per day.

The numbers declined, restrictions were loosened, and people began to get a grasp of their new reality, but to return to the old normal, vaccines were critical.

The first batch of Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines arrived in early December, shortly followed by the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and according to the Saudi Health Council, by the beginning of March, one million people had been inoculated.

But one million was not enough. Late last month, a series of recommendations were put into place by several ministries, including the Ministry of Haj and Umrah, making it mandatory for employees of certain sensitive sectors to be inoculated or provide weekly negative PCR test results.

By the end of March, four million had received at least one vaccine dose. The inoculation program picked up speed soon after. Vaccines were administered at a rate of one million doses every five to seven days.

Bahabri said that many people refusing to take the vaccine would start a series of unfortunate events that could lead to a possible collapse in the healthcare system.

Vaccine hesitancy has been hardened by false claims spreading on social media. Efforts were made to prevent false rumors being shared, such as fines and imprisonment when a perpetrator was caught.

“It’s not so much hesitancy anymore, it’s negligence,” said Bahabri, adding: “It’s unfortunate to see this happening. It’s un-Islamic, but fortunately people are listening and heeding the call.”

Abu-Talal, a retired businessman in Jeddah, told Arab News that the past year was difficult with the absence of his children and grandchildren. Having lost his wife nearly five years ago, he blamed his fear of the vaccine on conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine activists that flooded his social media feeds.

“I trust the experts, I trust the government but I did not know what to expect if I took it.”

He told Arab News that posts by skeptics claiming to have hard evidence that the pandemic is a hoax and that the inoculation would damage his genetics put him in a bubble he said was hard to get out of.

“It’s a scary time and though I resisted, my son eventually made the appointment for me and the decision was a fait accompli.

“My children wanted me safe. This has gone long enough and we all need to live normally again,” he said.

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