It’s time to speed up vaccination

Published April 19, 2021
The current pace of putting jabs in the arms is slow.
The current pace of putting jabs in the arms is slow.

Rising mortality in the midst of the third Covid-19 wave and growing anxiety in the business circles over possible restrictions on international travel and trade necessitate ramping up the pace of vaccination in Pakistan.

To speed up inoculations, the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan will need to bridge vaccine supply gaps with active participation from the federating units and the private sector. The current pace of putting jabs in the arms is slow. Federal Minister Asad Umar in a news conference last week said 1.3 million Pakistanis had so far got vaccinated at government facilities and 18,000 paid to get vaccine shots at private hospitals.

The vaccination drive in Pakistan started on March 9. It means roughly 32,000 people are getting vaccinated daily all over the country. At this rate, the back-of-the-envelope calculation shows, it will take more than three years to cover 20pc of the country’s population.

According to information on “Our World in Data” website, the vaccine coverage in Pakistan currently stands at about half a per cent of the population. A local dashboard to monitor and track vaccination has yet to be set up.

The slow pace of inoculation can have consequences. Besides being a weak shield to protect lives, it can prompt reactions from other countries. The fear of restrictions on international mobility of citizens and consignments, businesspeople feel, is not misplaced.

‘Private imports are bound to ruffle socialist feathers. It’ll be a net positive, however, if the move results in vaccinating more people’

“If a country fails to demonstrate progress, intent and capability to quickly vaccinate, it can be penalised,” said a worried businessman privately hinting at restrictions if the urgency of the widening vaccination coverage is not understood.

Dr Saad Shafqat, professor of neurology at Aga Khan University Hospital, keenly follows health and social issues. He did not see a significant threat to the mobility of Pakistanis. “The limitations around vaccines are a global problem.

“Private imports are bound to ruffle socialist feathers. But if the move ends up vaccinating more people then it’s a net positive. Pricing obviously has to make a business sense for the importer. But, of course, it shouldn’t be exploitative,” he said.

Highly placed sources at the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC), federal body steering Pakistan’s response to the pandemic, assured Dawn that the procurement of vaccines is getting the attention it deserves.

They mentioned a $150m budget that has been approved to procure vaccines from China to accelerate the drive.

Dismissing the fear of restrictions as baseless, an NCOC source asserted, “The vaccine rollout in Pakistan is progressing uninterrupted. It is not likely to alter international travel and trade situation.”

The schedule of procurement, however, was not shared. Responding to a Dawn query regarding the security of supply chain, the same source added: “The procurement plan includes the purchase of 2.5m vaccines from China. The consignment is expected to arrive in the last week of April.”

Commenting on the delay in vaccine consignments promised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and partners, the NCOC source insisted: “Pakistan has completed its part of the deal after lengthy negotiations with COVAX/GAVI (global bodies ensuring vaccine access). These reputable organisations do not renege on their commitment and will provide what they pledged as soon as they succeed in streamlining vaccine supplies.”

“Besides, the federal government has facilitated the provinces for direct procurement of vaccines to supplement the federal government’s efforts to achieve the targets,” said the source in an email without elaborating on the timeline or stating the targets decided. Health officials in Punjab confirmed that the deal for the purchase of Sinopharm from China is in the making.

“The Buzdar government has provided Rs1.5 billion for vaccine procurement,” Dr Bashir Ahmed Siddique of the Punjab Health Department said. Health officials in Sindh provided the current tally of vaccinations in the province but did not disclose if, when and how many vaccines they intend to directly import.

According to inoculation data shared by the health department, Sindh received 562,000 Sinopharm and 11,000 Cansino vaccines from the federation. Until April 12, it utilised 333,656 doses and was left with 42,191 Sinopharm and 6,000 Cansino vaccines. At the current rate of utilisation, Sindh is likely to finish the stock this week.

“There is a life-and-death contest between the vaccine and the virus as new strains pose threats of fresh outbreaks. Providing for the steady supply of jabs and their systematic, quick, fair and transparent utilisation is perhaps the single biggest and most urgent challenge that any government currently confronts,” observed a watcher.

Commenting on the absence of a local vaccine tracker, a retired executive critical of the official handling of private imports was furious. “It’s a life-and-death issue. People have a right to know. With an IT-based system in place that draws on the resources of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), a more transparent and accessible tracing and monitoring system is possible. Why has a dashboard to inform the public and the world regarding the progress of vaccination not been set up?”

An official involved in the vaccination programme privately commented: “A dashboard monitoring and tracking vaccination in real time can help identify the weak links and equip the relevant quarters to mobilise resources to quickly fix it.”

“Why can’t they see it coming? If the country fails to keep up with the average pace of vaccination in peer nations, it will hurt Pakistan’s image and compromise its position as a trade partner,” commented an aspiring young economist.

“What is it that we export that can’t be accessed from other sources?” she asked. “Practically nothing,” she said, adding: “Why in the world would anyone source supplies from the countries perceived to be less safe than other potential suppliers? It’s silly to undermine the gravity of the situation. It is now almost as much an economic issue as a health challenge.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 19th, 2021

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