THE NCOC has suggested installing more oxygen plants in various parts of the country as the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, spread to five continents this week. The decision to increase the number of oxygen plants and provide support to far-flung areas is timely, for as Planning Minister Asad Umar said last week, it is inevitable that the new variant will reach Pakistan. The forum also noted that though 50m people have been inoculated, vaccination rates need to increase so that the maximum number of individuals are jabbed against the virus. Though the latest officially recorded Covid-19 cases over a 24-hour period remained low at under 400, vigilance is key and coordination between the federal and provincial administrations can once again avert an all-out disaster. It is still early days for the new variant, and scientists are working at breakneck speed to better understand how lethal, transmissible and dangerous Omicron is. The most frightening prospect about the new strain is that it may evade vaccines and still infect those who have immunity from previous variants. If this is indeed the case, it will be a devastating blow to the global vaccination programme. The rapid increase of cases in South Africa suggests that the new variant may be able to beat the vaccine, given that about a fourth of the population is vaccinated and many have herd immunity. Some scientists suggest that even in a population that is highly vaccinated, the lack of other control measures will allow Omicron to spread.

Pakistan cannot afford to take Omicron lightly. With less than a quarter of the entire population fully inoculated, there are swathes of vulnerable, elderly unvaccinated citizens that could fall seriously ill and even be hospitalised. As scientists race to understand Omicron’s transmissibility, authorities have to err on the side of caution as they plan for what will happen if a virus that spreads faster than the Delta variant comes to Pakistan — even if it is not more lethal. It will still mean more infections and therefore a higher percentage of hospital admissions — something we have seen when cases spiked. As vaccinations and the number of oxygen tanks are ramped up, precautions such as mask wearing and distancing must be adhered to, especially indoors where large numbers of people are expected to gather during the festive season. Pakistan has successfully averted a Covid-19 catastrophe in the past, and with precautions and widespread testing, can do it again.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2021

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