THE last few months have seen several countries rolling out vaccination drives against the novel coronavirus, which is a matter of immense relief, but the pandemic still has many twists and turns in store.

Several highly transmissible strains — of the thousands now known to exist — originally detected in the UK, Brazil and South Africa have spread far and wide. Pakistan happens to be one of 92 countries where the UK strain has been detected, making it all the more imperative for vaccines to be made available and for people to get themselves inoculated.

The vaccination campaigns themselves, especially for developing countries with large populations, are a daunting task. Ensuring swift, fair and comprehensive coverage is one challenge; vaccine reluctance is another. As per figures supplied by the Ministry of National Health Services, only 180,000 of approximately 8m senior citizens in Pakistan have registered themselves for inoculation; that adds up to a mere 2.25pc of this demographic.

Curiously, a similar reluctance can be seen among the South Asian communities in the UK as well. And within that segment of the population, Pakistani-origin seniors are the most chary of getting their jabs. A survey in Bradford city found 23pc of Bradford-based Pakistanis older than 80 years refusing to get vaccinated, compared to 14.9pc of Bangladeshis and 6pc of Indians. Among the whites, the refusal rate was 3pc. As in the UK, Pakistan too needs to work harder to overcome the misgivings among the elderly towards the vaccine, given they have the highest fatality rate from Covid-19.

There is so much we still do not know about how this virus behaves that any new developments deepen the scepticism. For example, it was reported in this paper yesterday that a couple, both health workers at Mayo Hospital in Lahore, have tested positive three weeks after being administered the first of the two-shot Sinopharm vaccine. That is bound to raise questions about how long it takes for immunity to kick in, even with one dose. The government must reiterate that while no vaccine offers 100pc immunity and SOPs must continue to be observed, getting inoculated greatly reduces the odds of falling seriously ill with the disease.

If things go according to plan, close to 20m doses in total of the AstraZeneca vaccine will have arrived in Pakistan by late June, aside from the over 500,000 doses of Sinopharm that are being given to health workers across the country. And that is not counting the vaccines that will be imported by the private sector, for which the government has given permission.

We certainly do need to rev up our inoculation campaign. Pakistan at the moment is administering less than one vaccine dose per 100 people. With the government relaxing many earlier restrictions on social distancing, including reopening educational institutions, we cannot afford to be sluggish on this score.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2021

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