Virus resurgence

Published March 12, 2021

THE resurgence of Covid-19 cases across the country and the subsequent decision by the NCOC to impose restrictions has highlighted once again how critical an effective vaccination strategy is to defeating the virus.

The directives include a two-week spring break in educational institutions in 10 cities as well as smart lockdowns. A 50pc-work-from-home policy has also been brought back. Though these decisions are much needed, they will disrupt both education and economic activity — sectors that have already suffered huge setbacks due to the pandemic. Worryingly, results from a recent survey suggest that Covid-19 cases in the country are far more widespread than what is being officially recorded. While official records say that Pakistan has seen about 500,000 cases, the survey suggests the real figure could be 15m. This should serve as a wake-up call for the authorities that must increase testing and strive to make the immunisation drive a success.

That doctors and healthcare workers have shown hesitation in getting vaccinated is a worrying sign. Aside from the resumption of normal life and commercial activities, one of the key positive consequences of the vaccine is that it will lower hospitalisations, as seen in Britain, and ease the burden on healthcare workers who have been hit hard during the pandemic. The reluctance among hospital staff points to a poor understanding of the vaccine and the triumph of conspiracy theories as well as fear-mongering — challenges that can to a great extent be addressed by a robust awareness campaign.

At the moment, a vibrant and large-scale public information campaign is absent. The authorities must realise that investment in this campaign is in the interest of stabilising both education and the economy. An effective campaign can include public figures, mobile units, television and print advertisements, virtual seminars and telemarketing tools to spread awareness, combat misinformation and strengthen trust. Building awareness and trust is key to a sustained uptake of vaccines during the pandemic. It has been repeatedly stressed by health experts that a successful vaccination programme depends on high coverage, preparation and an effective delivery strategy. While Pakistan has been able to procure the vaccine, the rollout remains a challenge given the huge government target of 70m people.

While there is hope on the horizon with the availability of the vaccine to those over 60 years, the management of the programme is undoubtedly a challenge. Authorities should ensure that the vaccine is available and that information reaches those living in low-income communities. Officials must also think of how to utilise resources well as demand for the vaccine grows in urban centres. If hospitals are unable to deal with the volume of visitors, an alternative can be considered in mobile teams and door-to-door immunisations. It is imperative that the government dedicate resources to the vaccination programme, and adopt a proactive approach to developing a communications strategy.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2021

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