The health and safety of people and the future of the economy/trade in Pakistan hinge on the efficient utilisation of funds granted by the government for acquiring the Covid-19 vaccine and mobilising more resources for putting systems in place to effectively administer the inoculation when the opportunity knocks.
Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan approved an initial $100 million (Rs1.6 billion) for the purpose soon after two drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech announced 95 per cent efficacy of their vaccines. The Economic Coordination Committee later endorsed the supplementary grant of $150m to procure the vaccine.
These vaccines are expected to become commercially available by early next year. To secure the quick delivery, the prime minister has reportedly authorised early payments to drug-makers and listed the order of priority for administering the vaccination.
Learning gradually to live with the pandemic, businessmen and experts were hopeful about the future despite all odds. Their optimism is partially rooted in the country’s performance since the pandemic outbreak early this year.
Businesses seem optimistic partially because of the country’s performance since the outbreak of the pandemic early this year
Pakistan certainly did better than its equal and advanced global partners in containing the spread and mortality rate. The World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 dashboard on Nov 21 reported 11.6m cases and 250,000 deaths in the United States. In India, 9.05m people have contracted the deadly disease and 132,726 people have lost lives. In Pakistan, 368,665 cases were reported and 7,561 people have died since March. How much of this performance is of the government’s doing? Health professionals are still struggling to explain the pleasant discrepancy in Pakistan from the horrific global trend.
The economy of the country did take a severe beating as the growth rate dived and poverty/joblessness rose. It, however, showed a promising potential of bouncing back as soon as the lockdown was eased. The government’s generous support to the private sector and opening up the construction sector for untaxed wealth did help lift the spirits of the demoralised business class.
Background interviews revealed that the tycoons of the country thought through to moderate the impact of the next lockdown but rarely think of the future beyond next year. Even the advanced segments of the business community have yet to deliberate over the shape of post–Covid-19 business universe.
Dr Abdul Bari Khan, CEO of Indus Hospital, was confident. The hospital is running clinical trials of a Chinese vaccine developed by CanSinoBio and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology. Dr Khan said Pakistanis come together as a nation in every crisis.
“We have managed this far and God willing we will surprise ourselves again by handling the inoculation process well. The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) is streamlining provincial coordination. We are diligently tracing, testing and tracking affected people. We now have digitised records of health professionals, volunteers and caregivers. Hospitals are equipped better to respond to the emergency,” he said.
Dr Javed Akram, vice chancellor of the University of Health Sciences, believed that Pakistan would be facilitated with resources by global partners as the world couldn’t afford to neglect any country. “I don’t think the vaccine will be expensive. It will be made affordable for everyone as no country can be safe unless the whole world is swept clean of the virus.”
A champion of self-sustainability in health, he called for renewed synchronised efforts for local production of medicines. “For how much longer can we be content with local drug-makers just processing and packaging imported molecules? It’s a wakeup call to bridge the wedge between biochemists and industry,” he said.
Kaisar Waheed, former president of the Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PPMA), believes Covid-19 relief may come from the east. He said that clinical trials of vaccines developed by CanSinoBio and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology China are in progress in the country as it requires normal refrigeration.
“Logistics of vaccines developed in the West that require storage temperatures in the range of -20 to -80 degrees are not meant for countries like Pakistan,” he said.
Pakistan Business Council (PBC) CEO Ehsan Malik dismissed the fears of sanctions on exports and travel for not complying with globally accepted health standards as premature and baseless. He shared a 13-points general document of Covid-19 guidelines that were developed and circulated by the PBC.
“The government, by opening its coffers and restraining tax and NAB hounds, nudged the business class to shift attention from past (lockdown losses) to strategising for the future. The temporary exit of the IMF opened a window of opportunity for direct concessions and wealth whitening schemes. They know the honeymoon is not going to last long,” commented an analyst.
Quiet on the possibility of attaining herd immunity anytime soon, the head and members of the NCOC were evasive. Several attempts to pick brains of Dr Faisal Sultan, special assistant to the premier on health, or other key members of the federal government’s team did not succeed. Senior officers in economic ministries reached for comment were not clear on the primacy of the health challenge to the national economy.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 23rd, 2020