I wear a mask when I go out.

It’s not just a legal thing for me. It’s a responsibility thing.

We know that wearing masks don’t so much protect ourselves from getting Covid as it does protect others from getting it from us if we do. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, says that. United Nations (quoting World Health Organization research) guidelines explains it like this. Our own Ministry of Health advises it as well.

(I’m sad to have to list sources in this way, but in this day and age where “fake news” accusations are lobbed so easily and where social and mainstream media vie for attention, it just seems better to do so.)

In other words, while there is some protection for yourself when you wear a mask, the main reason we wear masks is to protect others if we are infectious.

Masks work best when everyone wears one.

Masks vs vaccinations

Herd immunity diagram
Image source: Shutterstock / No-Mad

It’s a similar thought process to getting vaccinated – getting vaccinated protects me, but every person who gets vaccinated helps to build up immunity in the community.

Generally speaking, scientists estimate that a vaccination rate of about 70% (although it varies according to disease) is needed for herd immunity, which is when an entire population is protected against a particular disease. Health Ministry’s chief health scientist Professor Tan Chorh Chuan says that for Covid-19 in Singapore, this number should be at least 80%.

That said, the UN has tempered expectations by saying that even with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, global herd immunity probably would not be achieved this year.

But some Singaporeans are expressing concern about getting vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus. Might be better to wait a little before getting the jab, they say.

And it is understandable. It’s about risk vs reward.

What’s the worst that can happen when I wear a mask? My glasses fog up, it takes a bit more effort to breathe, the back of my ears itch. Worst case? I get a nasty case of mask-acne (I refuse to say “maskne”, it just sounds wrong).

It’s a little harder to convince with vaccinations.

Yes, vaccinations have been a great boon against combating disease.

Covid-19-vaccine-trace-together-2
Image source: Shutterstock / A3pfamily

Rubella, measles, tetanus… all diseases that have been combated with vaccines. We have seen the stats of declining infant mortality rates over the years across the world. We’ve read about the polio vaccine saving lives. Smallpox has been all but eradicated.

Do you know how many jabs our kids get – and for what diseases – by the time they hit 12? Here you go, you’re welcome. Even with adults, doctors recommend vaccinations against a host of diseases, including influenza, HPV (for women) and Hep B.

So we are no stranger to getting vaccinated.

Concerns over Covid 19 vaccines

Covid-19 Mobile
Image source: Shutterstock / rafapress

Yet some of us are fearful of the Covid-19 vaccine. Why?

Simple. Because we don’t know enough.

And, thanks to the era of suspicion that we live in, we second-guess the information that we do get.

Can we take things at face value? Can we trust the experts? Can we trust the Government to make the right call on the experts?

Take face masks, for instance. Last January, the Government, quoting experts, discouraged Singaporeans from wearing masks, even running campaigns to “wear a mask only if you’re ill” in February. But by the circuit breaker, new information emerged. The experts were wrong. The Government recanted. The masks came out.

Some people have taken this sequence of events as “proof” that we can’t take the government’s word as gospel.

I would argue the opposite. Hindsight, as they say, is always 20-20. It’s easy to criticise after the fact.

The key here is transparency.

Can we believe the experts?

Covid-19-vaccine-trace-together-6
Image source: Unsplash / @hakannural

So the argument now is: Can we believe the experts this time round?

Vaccines take years to get created. Experts say that much of this time is tied up in getting grants and approvals and justifications for cost. With Covid-19 as a looming threat and with the world’s best scientists pooling their resources, this is human ingenuity at its best, they say.

That’s the thing. “They say”.

We live in an era of fake news. Now, this is not to say that these experts are pulling off some massive con. No, there is no “plandemic”, let’s leave that to the rabble rousers, the malicious actors and the tinfoil hat brigade.

But because of this, there is even more reason to be transparent about information. Leave it all out for all to see.

It is okay to sound unsure sometimes. Intellectual honesty involves an acknowledgement that we often can’t put a precise number on the risks we are taking, often due to insufficient information.

When the vaccine was first rolled out in December, there were reports of people suffering severe allergic reactions, or anaphylaxis. The CDC reported a rate of about 11 per million doses.

That’s why I’m glad that we have forums where experts explain these reports and give it the correct context. As Associate Professor Lim Poh Lian, a member of the Expert Committee for Covid-19 Vaccination told CNA: “It’s the one case of anaphylaxis that gets on the headlines. The 15,000 people that got vaccinated without anaphylaxis don’t get featured.”

A show of confidence is important, but convincing the public isn’t always a matter of telling us that everything is hunky dory, but that you are aware of the uncertainties and you have taken steps to mitigate the risk.

Acknowledge that whatever we do – even nothing – is risky.

That will go a long way to assuaging our fears about the vaccine in particular, and governance in general.

There is much we don’t yet know. We don’t know the long-term effects of Covid-19 although there have been some initial studies of post-Covid symptoms. And we don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine. This isn’t some malicious “oh the powers-that-be are keeping things from me” accusation. It’s a simple statement of fact. Covid-19 simply hasn’t been around long enough for long-term studies to even exist!

There is no shame in acknowledging the fog of war that masks the future.

There is reassurance in knowing that while our leaders would know more than us, they don’t know everything.

Covid-19 trace together App
Image source: Shutterstock / Daria Nipot

And there is character in acknowledging that perhaps, sometimes you made a bad call. That gives the public confidence that you are acting in good faith.

Like many other Singaporeans, I was disappointed at how the TraceTogether app privacy issue was handled. And I appreciate that Minister Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged his mistake and I hope that the new law to limit TraceTogether info will be comprehensive enough to assuage the public’s concerns.

Making an informed choice and taking a leap of faith

Let’s be clear, we are in a good position in Singapore.

Crowded Mall in Singapore
Image source: Unsplash / @heamosoo

Have you been to the malls recently? Eaten at a restaurant? Remember how it was during the circuit breaker? We are now in Phase 3 while some countries are going back into lockdown. The UK has reported more than 80,000 deaths, with fatalities spiking up above 1,000 a day. Europe is in another surge. The US is in turmoil.

Vaccines are limited. Yet here in Singapore, we are debating whether or not we should take the Moderna or the Pfizer-BioNtech or the Sinovac… can you see how this might come across as a little tone-deaf?

Yes, fears remain. So it is encouraging to know more about the medical facilities where we take our jabs if we do suffer an allergic reaction. We do not know if there are long-term side effects to the vaccine. So it is encouraging to see PM Lee and frontliners getting the first shots.

Still, it is an act of faith to follow advice from a governmental body (or anyone, for that matter!) that may not have a full understanding of your personal situation.

But as I recently argued with a group of friends, there are three main ways people react to situations: You change it, you accept it, or you leave.

I choose to have faith in the government’s sharing of information. I am still uneasy about some things. But I believe that people, like me, will continue to ask more questions and the answers will come. I am encouraged by discussions on social media and public forums.

The government should also do its part in being forthcoming in its replies. So far it has.

But as the mask and the TraceTogether privacy app issues have shown, people need reassurance and people deserve answers. Public trust is difficult to earn but is easily lost.

Then it boils down to this: Risk vs reward. Do I risk the potential short and long-term effects of a vaccine in order to get the reward of being safer, and to keep others safe?

That is a personal decision, based on the information we get and the level of trust we have in our leaders.

For me, I’ll be taking the vaccine (and nope, I’m not going to haggle over which one to choose) when it comes to my turn. After all, I’m already wearing a mask.

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