Dr Zafar Mirza speaks at the KPC on Thursday.—PPI
Dr Zafar Mirza speaks at the KPC on Thursday.—PPI

KARACHI: The coronavirus pandemic, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and precautions to prevent its spread and the Covid-19 vaccine were at the fore of the media talk by former adviser to the prime minister on health Dr Zafar Mirza here on Thursday.

“These days, any talk about health turns to talk about Covid-19. We have been quite lucky here in Pakistan to not have experienced the kind of devastation that so many other countries went through,” he said at the event organised by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research at the Karachi Press Club.

“In Pakistan, we understood the dangers of the coronavirus early. The first case here emerged on Feb 26 but we had been preparing for it since January. Then came the decision of imposing lockdowns or smart lockdowns during the National Security Committee meeting on March 14. These lockdowns definitely had an impact on controlling the spread of the virus. The disease can be controlled even if 20 per cent of the people at a high risk of catching the coronavirus observe the SOPs. And we were able to do that in the first wave,” he said.

Missing resolve

Coming to the second wave of the pandemic, Dr Mirza said that it was not taken as seriously as the first by the administration or the people. “That kind of resolve which we saw in the first wave is missing in the second. Despite the government’s banning big gatherings, [they are] still happening all around. But we should have responded to it like we had done in the first wave.

‘The new variant or strain is said to be 70 per cent more transmissible. So the disease can spread fast and would be difficult to control’

“And now that the second wave is easing a bit there is the UK Covid-19 variant. There is a scare about it now. Yes, viruses and bacteria are always evolving. We have already seen some 150 genetic changes in Covid-19. The new variant or strain is said to be 70 per cent more [transmissible]. So the disease can spread fast and would be difficult to control. So you need to take care that you don’t become the reason for spreading it,” he said.

Vaccine and precautions

Coming to the Covid-19 vaccine, he said that it is no substitution for precautions. “Precautions have their own importance. Yes, Pakistan is accessing the Global Alliance for Procurement of Vaccines. At least eight pharmaceutical companies are in the process of manufacturing coronavirus vaccines and the Pakistan government is talking to some companies for purchasing it. But until the Chinese vaccine is available, this would be administered to front-line health workers followed by other health workers. In the best case scenario, only 20 per cent of Pakistan’s population would be receiving it by the first quarter of 2021,” he said.

“In developing countries such as ours, the influential people get vaccines first. But it will not be available to the private sector soon. So even if you can buy it, you may not be able to. The government, too, should take care that it should be given to those in line of priority, and there should not be any snatching,” he said.

Finally, as adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on universal public health in Pakistan, he shared that the government of Pakistan is not providing health services to more than 30pc of the population. “Until we involve the private sector in healthcare, the situation would not improve,” he said, adding that public-private partnership is needed for universal coverage of health.

“The National Health Card issuance is one of the steps, which is provided to the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. In Sindh this card was provided to people in Tharparkar district. Disabled and transgenders are also being provided health cards on a priority basis,” he said.

He added that the WHO has established an important body called Global Council for Health Financing to look at why governments are not spending on health, especially in developing countries. He said it is now an established fact that health is a factor of productivity and it was essential to invest in human health. He also said that currently, health is not part of fundamental rights in Pakistan’s Constitution. “A constitutional amendment is required to incorporate the right to health in the Constitution,” he noted.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2021

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