JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia (Reuters) – As the world scrambles to inoculate people against COVID-19, one store owner in Malaysia is finding his paper vaccines have become popular prayer offering items during a religious festival to honour the deceased.
The Hungry Ghost festival, celebrated by Buddhists and Taoists across Southeast Asia, centres on a belief that the spirits of the dead return to Earth during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. During this time, people leave out food items for the dead and burn incense and intricate offerings made of paper resembling things the deceased may have wanted.
This year, a box set of a syringe and two vaccine vials made of paper are among the fastest-selling items for the festival at Raymond Shieh Siow Leong’s religious goods store in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru.
“The COVID-19 situation in our country is quite serious and many people passed away before receiving the vaccine. I hope this product can help the deceased to fulfil their dying wish,” Shieh said.
Shieh said he started making the paper vaccine sets in early August, producing about 30 to 50 sets a day. Each set costs 22.80 ringgit ($5.45) and Shieh said he had sold more than 200 sets so far.
“We made this paper vaccine to test the water of the market, but we didn’t expect the reaction to be this good. The orders keep coming, and we have to work overtime until late at night to make this product,” he said.
Malaysia has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia with a total caseload of almost 1.6 million and a death toll of 14,818. About 57% of the population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A Muslim-majority country, about 20% of Malaysia’s 32 million people practise Buddhism, the second-most prevalent religion.
($1 = 4.1870 ringgit)
(Reporting by Lim Huey Teng; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Karishma Singh)