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What will the ‘new normal’ look like? How do we achieve herd immunity across Asia? What more can we do to emerge stronger from the pandemic? These are discussed in the first episode of Tanoto Foundation’s podcast ‘Unlocking Potential: Conversations with Tanoto Foundation’.
In this episode titled ‘Beyond the Pandemic’, RGE Managing Director and Tanoto Foundation Board of Trustees Member Belinda Tanoto speaks with Professor Tikki Pangestu, Visiting Professor at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. Specialising in research in infectious diseases, Professor Pangestu previously served as Director of Research Policy and Cooperation at the World Health Organization.
Following an introduction and explanation on how vaccines work, Professor Pangestu says that 80-90% of the population will need to achieve immunity in order to reach herd immunity. He explains the “golden goal” of a vaccine is to stop the spread of the virus and exit the pandemic, and herd immunity remains critical in supporting this.
The expert in infectious diseases references Israel and the United Kingdom (UK) as two examples of how vaccines reduce not only the spread of the infection but also mortality rates. With about 60% coverage, people in Israel are 30 times less likely to be infected and ten times less likely to be hospitalised. While the UK, which has 30-40% coverage, deals with the more infectious Delta variant, there is a significantly lower mortality rate.
Three Challenges: Supply, Logistics and Vaccine Hesitancy
Professor Pangestu cites countries such as China and Singapore who have higher coverage of vaccination. These countries provide learning lessons for Asian countries in exiting the pandemic. However, according to him, countries that have lower coverage face three major challenges.
The first challenge is supply, represented by the inequitable distribution of vaccines across developing countries not helped by vaccine nationalism. The second challenge, logistics, relates to the public health infrastructure and its adequacy in delivering vaccines safely and efficiently to the population. Vaccine hesitancy is the third challenge, which can be answered by decreasing people’s reluctance in getting vaccinated and increasing social responsibility.
The Way Forward
Discussing with Ms Tanoto on how a country can move forward to exit the pandemic, Professor Pangestu refers to three areas identified by Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. A country has to have good health infrastructure to handle large scale public health challenges; good governance to remain closely coordinated under the same objective; and social capital to ensure communities and the nation remain resilient.
In response to Ms Tanoto’s question on the roles of the private sector, Professor Pangestu says it is important to foster close collaboration across a wider group of stakeholders. These include not only governments, civil society organisations, philanthropies and faith-based organisations, but also private healthcare institutions. Private hospitals and private clinics play an important role in delivering vaccines to the population. He adds that pharmaceutical companies, with their good distribution networks, can support with transport and distribution.
Role of Philanthropies
Professor Pangestu shares that philanthropies also play an important role in helping countries exit the pandemic. He identifies three areas that philanthropies have continued to deliver impact.
First, philanthropies have and can continue to support mass vaccination programmes while also reducing the spread of infection. The support may come in the form of direct financing in the purchase of vaccines, oxygen and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Second, philanthropic organisations can join wider efforts in communication, advocacy and education on overcoming the challenge of vaccine hesitancy. Professor Pangestu further explains that education on vaccines have to be accompanied by scientific literacy, where one understands the risk and benefit arguments of vaccines and is less susceptible to misinformation.
Lastly, Professor Pangestu says philanthropies play an important role in supporting research. He argues that more knowledge has to be continuously built, and at the same time, we have to better understand why people are hesitant about vaccines. This is so that government policies can be better informed and implemented.
The dialogue between Professor Pangestu and Ms Belinda Tanoto later shifts to ideas and examples of how mindsets can be changed through engagement and incentive. Both share that private sector stakeholders have introduced “freebies”, rewards and even lottery prizes to incentivise the vaccination at the community level. Professor Pangestu adds that such incentives have to ultimately be tailored to the needs of the local population, citing cell phone credits in some parts of Indonesia as an example.
The dialogue then touches on the use of media, platforms and the right messengers to normalise the acceptance of vaccines in ushering in the new normal. Traditional and social media firstly play an important role in providing information, and collaboration with the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook, for instance, are key to directing people to reliable sources of information such as those from international bodies and the government advisories. At the same time, the professor suggests that legislation on misinformation and fake news will be helpful
Secondly, grassroots educational events in the communities present a means to localising communication of vaccines. These are sometimes done through performances, songs, art and culture. We can leverage the power of stories to influence people.
Thirdly, Professor Pangestu says messengers play a vital role in the delivery and acceptance of the vaccination campaign. He highlights the role of community and religious leaders in creating stronger awareness and acceptance of vaccines in the community. Because of their influence and relatability, celebrities have also played a significant part in supporting a nation’s journey to achieving herd immunity.
A New Normal
Professor Pangestu believes that the acceptance of the vaccine represents the acceptance of one’s responsibility as a member of the community and citizen of the country. In order for Asia to exit the pandemic, there has to be a concerted and continuous effort to vaccinate and reach herd immunity, improve testing capacity, and elevate social responsibility across all communities. Leaders will have to have the foresight and the speed of anticipation – built on data – to overcome the pandemic.
He says the virus will not go away and will be endemic, something that the world has to live with. Using Singapore as an example, he says that there are countries that are planning ahead and treating COVID-19 as the new flu. In Singapore’s case, he says the country adopts a four-prong approach to exit the pandemic: Vaccination, testing, treatment, and social responsibility.
He explains further on testing, saying that there is a shift towards more rapid, convenient and targeted testing, away from mass testing and contact tracing. On treatment, he observes that the healthcare system and hospitals are now more ready and better equipped to treat those who are infected. Professor Pangestu emphasizes that social responsibility will remain important in the longer term, with mask-wearing, good hygiene and social distancing further normalised. However, he also notes that larger countries will recover differently and have a more context-specific new normal.
To not only achieve healthier lives but also thrive beyond the pandemic, Professor Pangestu suggests that there be a mix of design thinking and systems thinking in the development of policy, infrastructure and solutions. He believes these should be designed along the axes of equity, empathy, compassion, social justice and human rights, so the underserved and underprivileged can be more adequately supported and uplifted.
‘Unlocking Potential: Conversations with Tanoto Foundation’ is a new Tanoto Foundation-produced podcast that discusses a variety of issues concerning human capital development, sustainability, healthcare and more. Tanoto Foundation is an independent philanthropic organization founded by Sukanto Tanoto (also RGE Chairman and Founder) and Tinah Bingei Tanoto in 1981.
Catch the full conversation of ‘Beyond the Pandemic’ with Professor Tikki Pangestu and Belinda Tanoto: