AS Pakistan reaches the milestone of 10m coronavirus vaccine jabs — with over 2m people fully vaccinated — there are fresh challenges for the government. Earlier this year, as the world and the region raced to procure vaccines, Pakistan lagged behind. Despite initial delays, the government has now ramped up procurement and said it will receive over 18m donated or purchased doses from China and Covax.
Now that vaccines are being made available and supply issues are being addressed, there are new tests for the government in the shape of vaccine hesitancy and efficient distribution. How does the government plan to pursue its ambitious target of vaccinating 70m citizens, and what measures is it taking to ensure large numbers of people are safely vaccinated without glitches?
A recent news report highlighted one part of this dual challenge, revealing that 300,000 citizens failed to return for a second dose. An official from the Ministry of National Health Services suggested that some died before getting the second dose; or that they contracted Covid-19 between the doses and thus were hesitant. One reason was that the negative propaganda about the vaccine was keeping citizens from getting their second jab.
NCOC chair Asad Umar said that a call centre would be set up to contact hesitant citizens and persuade them. But more must be done to combat this hesitancy. It is no mean feat, considering how rampant the dangerous anti-polio vaccine propaganda has been despite decades of investment and awareness-building. For this reason, all-out efforts must be made by both federal and provincial officials to engage citizens.
Coercive measures, such as blocking SIM cards, are not only ill-advised, they are also counterproductive as it would cut off citizens’ communication channels altogether. It is critical for the government to demonstrate to members of the public how badly health, business and education have suffered during the pandemic. To do this, engaging citizens from each of these sectors to act as role models for others could have positive results. The public must also know that with developing countries successfully vaccinating a majority of their population, travel curbs on Pakistan could remain in place for fear of variants.
Aside from the challenge of communicating the consequences of vaccine refusals to the public, the government also has the gargantuan logistical task of administering the vaccine safely and efficiently at centres across the country. Not only must authorities ensure the vaccine is stored and maintained according to scientific guidelines, they should also devise a strategy that prioritises efficient service.
Though the vaccination drives in major cities are managed well, the challenge will come when the government expands centres into smaller cities and rural districts. Across the world, a successful vaccine roll-out is imperative to protect against the virus and drive herd immunity. Pakistan must play its part by ensuring equitable vaccine access.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2021