WITH every form of restriction now effectively lifted in the country after an assessment of the Covid-19 situation, the weeks ahead present a new challenge for the government. As schools, cinemas and mass indoor gatherings such as weddings begin to return to the pre-Covid era, a successful vaccine roll-out is imperative. In the UK, where both national morale and the economy have taken a colossal hit due to record deaths and cases, a successful inoculation drive is restoring hope and trust. Pakistan has been fortunate, that despite a weak and unsophisticated healthcare system and a large population, it has reported a far lower number of deaths and cases when compared to several higher-income countries. The exact reason for this is yet to be determined. But while experts scratch their heads, and factors such as herd immunity and a young population are mulled over, the authorities cannot be complacent. The Covid-19 nightmare is far from over. Therefore, the resumption of regular commercial activities must go hand in hand with a mass vaccination programme.

A successful programme hinges on a public awareness programme, a streamlined monitoring and distribution strategy and transparent communication. Thus far, China’s Sinopharm has arrived in Pakistan with over half a million doses. Covax has donated 17m doses which the government expects will arrive in phases from March to June. While the vaccine is being administered to healthcare workers across the country, registration rates remain low. Healthcare workers in some areas have shown reluctance citing several concerns, including fears about side effects and lack of information about efficacy. Here, the government must do more to raise awareness and build confidence so that people understand that the benefits of getting the vaccine outweigh the perceived risks. Secondly, systems in place from past vaccination programmes must be made use of. This includes a plan for how budgets will be used as well as one for the detection and monitoring of new cases in order to determine the extent to which the population is protected. Third, a daily update on vaccinations is imperative, as it will not only build transparency but also reinforce the idea of how central the vaccine is to resuming normal activities.

Though cases in the country remain low, the story did turn grim during the first and second peaks. Today, anecdotal accounts of severe Covid-19 symptoms and deaths are not uncommon. Testing, however, remains abysmally low at between 30,000 and 40,000 daily. For a population of over 200m, of which 70m have been identified by the government as potential vaccine recipients, this figure is a tragedy. Increased testing is a must if the government wants to continue to keep commercial activities going. Failure to ensure this will mean we might be forced to face yet another peak — especially if the vaccination programme is slow.

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2021

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