SINGAPORE: The general coronavirus conversations my friends and I have, once dominated by where to get toilet paper, moved into which parts of the world were locking down yet again late last year.
Yet soon after news of COVID-19 vaccines obtained approval from health authorities around the world in December, these discussions shifted into the messy business of vaccines and how safe they might be.
With some 150 or so vaccines under development, and just over a handful getting the greenlight, such discussions can jog along for a fair spell.
Then it’s a short hop to the true litmus test of vaccination: Would you be keen to get in line if one was ready?
I can’t remember what nudged me to mention in a WhatsApp group chat some weeks ago that I’d volunteered to be a guinea pig for a local trial and had been turned down. Word spread to at least two other group chats.
Reactions ranged widely from “Thank goodness!” to “Are you insane?” and finally, “You’re just saying it. You can’t be risking your life like that.”
Similar responses have emerged to me saying I would have no hesitation in taking the vaccine when it was my turn.
“You’re really going to get vaccinated? Not scared ah?”
Scared of getting infected with COVID-19? Sure! And why not? For one thing, I’d rather bet on a vaccine than on surviving yet another deadly infection unvaccinated.
Listen to the behind-the-scenes considerations and discussions going into what might be Singapore’s biggest vaccination programme ever on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
THE BATTLE WITH POLIO
I already survived one life-threatening illness in childhood when I had polio in 1960. It left me paralysed on my left side for months and turned much of that year into a blur. For years, those months spent at home, mostly in bed, haunted me.
At Youngberg Hospital, our family doctor, Dr G H Coffin, told my mother that western medicine could do nothing more for me. Polio had already left his own daughter with one leg much shorter than the other.
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Dr Coffin, who was fluent in Cantonese, suggested that Mum take me to our family sinseh (doctor) but come back to Youngberg every few months so he could see how I was doing.
Polio was life-changing. I had fallen ill after ballet class. After I recovered, I tried to go back but found not only did I fall over each time I tried to pirouette on my left leg, I couldn’t even go on point.
My left foot also stopped growing and by adulthood, reached nearly two sizes smaller than the right.
If only I'd been vaccinated, I thought when I later read about the Salk vaccine which came into use in 1955. It was available in Singapore in 1960 but nobody my family knew had braved the injection.
Most people here at the time were probably vaccine sceptics before the term was invented.
It was different with the BCG vaccination against tuberculosis (TB) which the government rolled out nationwide from 1957. In school, we all lined up to have it.
In 1972, the Singapore Medical Journal records that TB occurred in just five per 100,000 population among those vaccinated, compared with 37 per 100,000 for those who were not.
Ultimately, the impact of polio on me was greater psychologically than physically. Apart from it killing any dreams I had of a ballet career, it made my mother overly protective of me.
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When I had had difficulty resuming ballet classes, she let me quit. She actively discouraged me from all sport. The slightest sniffle was reason enough to whip out the Vicks Vaporub.
THE FLU IS A DREADED ANNUAL FIGHT
Had I been vaccinated earlier, perhaps my life might have turned out differently.
This attitude towards vaccination, mixed with regret and what-could-have-been, has been reinforced in a different way in our modern society.
As a journalist working in a packed newsroom in the 1990s, each time the flu visited the newsroom, it would cuddle up to me.
I had the good fortune to be referred to a respiratory medicine specialist who told me I needed to be vaccinated every year against both the flu and pneumonia. Frequent bouts of flu, coupled with asthma, were affecting the functioning of my lungs.
Unsurprisingly, the mostly flu-free years since have undoubtedly made me even more pro-vaccination.
THE DEATH OF A FRIEND
As if I had needed any more persuasion, came news of the death in Las Vegas, Nevada, of a long-time friend. CH and I had been schoolmates in Singapore in the 1960s and members of the school’s glee club.
She was an extrovert who loved to sing and once took part in the Radio Television Singapore’s Talentime competition. For a few years, she was also my travel agent.
She emigrated to the US and remarried but came home regularly and would always get in touch. The last time we had dinner with her was less than a year ago.
Her husband said in a text message that she had become ill after going on a short trip with him within the US, neither of them wearing a mask. On their return, she felt unwell. She was admitted to hospital on Dec 12.
And just like that, she was gone; her light extinguished.
HIGH RISK GROUP
The most important reason that I want to be vaccinated is not that I am in the high-risk group. Indeed, I am overweight and diabetic. And I am 71.
These three factors put me at risk of becoming severely ill should I get infected.
But even worse would be the danger I pose to my three older sisters, other family members and friends whom I meet regularly.
Among these, there are four reasons that outweigh everything else: My grandnephew, two grandnieces, and my godson’s little boy.
As new and more infectious variants emerge, I cannot bear the thought that I might somehow become infected and pass it on to them, despite all the precautions.
So since shortly after the pandemic reached Singapore, I have barely hugged my “grandees” and have seen my godson’s toddler only in photographs.
For me, that’s reason enough to want a vaccination.
Irene Hoe is a writer, editor and coach and has been a journalist for many decades.