Posts falsely claim Malaysia mandates second Covid booster as China tourist influx expected

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Malaysian social media users have repeatedly shared a false claim the country is mandating Covid-19 booster shots and "will take legal action" against those who do not comply. The claim circulated in early January 2023 after Malaysia's health minister urged residents who had received a first booster dose the previous year to get a second booster dose, as a spike in infections in China raised concern in the Southeast Asian nation. But a Malaysian health ministry spokeswoman said there was no mandate for mandatory jabs, and a lawyer told AFP there have never been any state or federal laws requiring residents to get booster shots.

The claim, shared alongside a composite image showing Malaysia's Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa beside a vaccine vial, was posted on Facebook here on January 5, 2023.

"Malaysians are required to take booster doses as 3 million Chinese tourists will enter the country soon. Anyone who does not take the booster dose will face legal action," reads the Malay-language caption.

Malay-language text on the image translates as: "Bringing in Chinese Tourists, Ministry of Health Wants People To Take Booster Shots."

In December 2022, China announced it was scrapping its Covid-zero policy which had largely kept the virus at bay but tanked the economy and sparked widespread protests.

Local media reported that Malaysia anticipated an influx of at least one million Chinese travellers in 2023 following the easing of restrictions, with authorities urging residents not to overreact to their arrival following a surge in Covid-19 cases there.

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken on January 26, 2023

The claim also circulated repeatedly in similar Facebook posts here, here, here and here.

The claim, however, is false.

According to a report by local health-based media outlet CodeBlue, when Malaysia rolled out booster shots in October 2021 the health minister at the time, Khairy Jamaluddin, said it was not mandatory.

Malaysia limited people who were not fully vaccinated to only essential activities such as buying groceries or going to school or work between April 1, 2022 and May 1, 2022 as it began its "transition towards endemicity".

From May 2022 onwards, residents were allowed to enter all public venues regardless of vaccination status.

Boosters 'encouraged'

A health ministry spokeswoman told AFP the claim made in the posts is false.

No legal action will be taken against people who do not get a booster shot, she said, adding that it was "not mandatory but highly encouraged".

The spokeswoman also pointed AFP to a statement on Zaliha's official Facebook page on January 5 that denied the claims, calling them "inaccurate and malicious".

The statement says: "The Minister of Health has never issued such a statement and has never mentioned that anyone who does not take a booster dose will be subject to legal action.

"The public is asked to always be cautious and check the spread of false news. Not sure, don't share!"

In a statement on January 2, the health minister urged residents who had received a first booster dose more than six months earlier to get another booster dose.

She also addressed fears over China's relaxation of travel curbs and rising Covid-19 infections, saying the health ministry was in close contact with the World Health Organization, China and other countries in the region.

“The Ministry of Health also always takes policies that are guided and based on science and accurate data,” she said.

No legal repercussion

Meanwhile, lawyer and human rights advocate Ambiga Sreenevasan told AFP there are no federal or state laws against people who did not get Covid-19 booster shots.

"Even at the height of Covid there was no [legal] compulsion to take the vaccine," she said.

Syahredzan Johan, a lawyer and member of parliament, said he did not expect the government would make a second booster shot mandatory.

"I believe the situation is different from before and that means that the approach must also change," he said.

Syahredzan said that if the government encouraged Malaysians to take the second booster shot, they would, as vaccine awareness had increased.

January 30, 2023 This article was updated to clarify details about how restrictions changed for unvaccinated people in Malaysia.