Ahmad Badri Abdullah
Vaccination has become a complex and controversial issue among Malaysians, especially Muslims. It has led to hair-splitting disputes involving safety, efficacy and halal matters.
The anti-vaccine movement in the country began as a social campaign that became widespread over social media. Malaysian households were, and are still, being exposed to conflicting messages on immunisation. The spread of information, more often than not misinformation, has dented the government’s public health policies concerning vaccination.
There are at least three main reasons why Muslim parents refuse to vaccinate their children. The first, probably the foremost reason, is that most of them doubt the vaccine’s halal status. Second, they are more convinced that homoeopathic and traditional medicines are safer alternatives. And third, they fear the vaccine’s side effects such as brain damage and autism, which have been widely circulated on social media.
As a consequence, Malaysia, in recent years has been registering a steady increase of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, pertussis and tetanus. Cases of measles are reported to have increased from 235 in 2014 to 539 in 2015. Pertussis (whooping cough) had increased from 497 in 2014 to 655 cases in 2015 while tetanus cases have doubled in 2015 compared with 12 cases in the previous year.
Conflicting messages on alternative medicine such as homoeopathy and naturopathy have also challenged the public trust. This trust deficit in vaccination needs to be carefully dealt with, otherwise, the growing anti-vaccine trend could dampen the growth of even the nascent halal vaccine market in the country. This is due to the fact that the movement does not merely suspect the halal status of the vaccines but involves a total rejection of vaccination as a valid healthcare option.
To address these challenges, it is proposed that immunisation be viewed beyond the confines of epidemiological and economic analyses, and include other factors such as social and religious dimensions.
The nature of multiple interactions of different actors needs to be considered. In this perspective, the government — especially the public health department — is not the sole actor and proponent of public health. Broader societal forces like the social network and household decisions need to be carefully observed as well.
An anti-vaccine movement in the country can cause a trust deficit on both vaccination and government health policies. Public trust is a critical element in the success of any public health programme. However, in the Malaysian context, it tends to be driven by a top-down approach.
The governance of vaccination, for instance, is often seen as a top-down approach to maintain control. Therefore, there are limited efforts and awareness on the importance to gain public trust among the bodies who run the immunisation campaign. Hence, a bottom-up approach is needed to reinstitute trust among the public.
To prevent further decline of public trust of the Malaysian society, proactive actions should be taken by the government and mass media. The government should aim to develop “affective trust” with households through building emotional bonds by way of repeated interaction with them. Also advisable is a rigorous social media campaign to inform the public on the importance of vaccination — one that should preferably be promoted through friendly programmes that involve family, parents and children.
The government should also engage with practitioners of homoeopathy or naturopathy — through roundtable and dialogues. A consensus on public health priorities and programmes, including vaccination, could also be developed. Any form of confrontation should be avoided and issues must be addressed rationally since confrontation will only exacerbate the problem.
It is alarming how intense and divisive the debate between vaccine proponents and its detractors has become. Therefore, it is proposed that Islamic ethics of reasoned disagreement (fiqh al-ikhtilaf) should be the guiding principle in vaccination debates.
The late Professor Taha Jabir AI-Alwani, who authored the book of ikhtilaf, proposed that Islamic ethics of disagreement should encompass the attitude of preserving the brotherhood, unity and avoidance of division among fellow Muslims. Moreover, those who are involved need to remain committed to the truth — it means they are willing to listen to others and stand to be corrected.
Ultimately, intellectual humility is of critical importance in dealing with this contentious issue.
The writer is a research fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.
Published in: New Straits Times, Wednesday 20 February 2019
Food is an indispensable aspect of any festive celebration in Malaysia. With a happy mix of ethnicities and cultures, the country is a host to numerous varieties of food. During the fasting month of Ramadan, Muslim communities produce and consume a large amount of food as they normally organise iftar (breaking of fast) gatherings.
The advent of Eid al-Fitr does not ease their love for food as the festival demands another set of traditional dishes and delicacies be served to friends and visitors. All this results in a huge amount of food waste. There are reports that no fewer than 9,000 tonnes of food are discarded per day during Ramadan.
The development of modern agriculture in many countries has led to the displacement of food production at the individual, local and community levels as it is, in many cases, being outsourced to multinational corporations or large agribusinesses.
Most of the people today are consumers rather than producers of food. People do not produce their food anymore like they used to and this has somehow led our communities to lose their connection with the food production practices and traditions.
Currently, we are also facing some worrying issues in terms of our food system as the largely centralised industry has failed to meet some expectations. In terms of distribution, the global community is witnessing a considerable decrease in food production despite increasing demand. To meet the population demand by 2050, our global agricultural production must increase by 60 per cent. The disparity between demand and production will lead to serious dysfunctional imbalances in food distribution globally.
Added to this are food waste issues we face at the national level. Food waste as defined by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations is the removal of food from its overall supply due to economic behaviour, poor stock management or neglect.
Reportedly, a third of the overall food that is grown is wasted between any point from farm to fork daily, which is valued at more than US$1 trillion (RM4 trillion), and if consumed the amount would be sufficient to feed 870 million people worldwide.
One of the main contributing factors of the food waste phenomenon, despite individual attitude, is the linear trait of our food chain, whereby food supplies tend to move linearly from producers to consumers. This results in the generation of vast quantities of food that consumers do not need. It is the sad reality of all segments of the food market and this has led to another linear economic culture of “buy, use and dispose”.
What is needed is a food system model that emulates the cycle of life. Experts call this circular economy. Such a model keeps resources in use for as long as we can, thus maximising value for everyone. By connecting producers of food and consumers in a balanced loop, the circular model gets rid of the “buy, use and dispose” mindset. Also, such a model enables us to regenerate the products and materials at the end of their service life.
Information technology enables the circular economy to operate effectively, as it is able to connect consumers directly to food producers without any boundary.
For instance, an initiative known as Farmigo in the United States has been connecting consumers with local farmers through an online platform whereby they can order fresh products directly from their preferred producers. In this system, the farmers will only harvest fruit or vegetables when they have orders to fulfil, as an approach to prevent waste. In South Korea, households need to pay to the government according to the amount of food waste they are likely to dispose, and this has led to the recycling of 95 per cent of food waste annually. In Malaysia, Hayati Food Aid Foundation has been collecting unserved dishes from hotels and canned food from hypermarkets to distribute to charities and kitchen soups.
As we are celebrating the month of Syawal with the spirit of returning to our God-given natural selves (fitrah), we need to reflect as well on our food production system and consumption patterns in order to ensure they operate in such a way that conforms to the natural cycle of life. It is a crucial step at preventing wastage in any sphere of our life, as Allah, May He Be Glorified, has declared: “Indeed, the wasteful are brothers of the devils, and ever has Satan been to his Lord ungrateful,” (al-Isra’, 17:27).
Ahmad Badri Abdullah is a research fellow at IAIS Malaysia, with a focus on maqasid al-shari’ah (the higher objective of shari’ah), usul al-fiqh, and contemporary Islamic jurisprudence discourse, particularly in the subject of systems thinking and its application in Islamic philosophy of law
Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 22 June 2018
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