KARACHI: After months of warding off appeals from his employers to get vaccinated for the Covid-19 disease, Mohammad Yusuf, 24, working as a live-in domestic worker in Karachi’s Clifton area, finally relented and got his first shot.

“I believed that anyone who took the vaccine would die within two years,” he said, adding that he got this information from social media.

The people who finally convinced him were his parents living in the village of Rahil, in Sindh’s Umerkot district, where, according to Yusuf, “not a single case of Covid-19 has to date been found”.

 ARADHIYA Khan, a transwoman, gets her vaccination in the middle of the night in July 2021. She had to stand in the women’s line as there was none for her gender.—Courtesy IPS
ARADHIYA Khan, a transwoman, gets her vaccination in the middle of the night in July 2021. She had to stand in the women’s line as there was none for her gender.—Courtesy IPS

But because Karachi was rife with the virus then, his parents explained that he might catch the infection if he remained unvaccinated.

The other reason for his hesitancy was the fear that if he got Covid-19 and was hospitalised, he may die without saying goodbye to his family and be buried unceremoniously by strangers.

“You either got well within ten days, or you’d die a very difficult and painful death with breathlessness, high fever, and then death,” is how he explained the disease and its symptoms.

Health ministry’s data shows over 125m people received their first jab by March 2022

Rakhi Matan, 40, a caretaker for the elderly, had heard, “If someone got Covid-19, the government would come and pick them up from their home and take them to a centre, inject poison into you after which you died.” It was this fear that got her to vaccinate herself. But since the shot, she often falls sick and attributes it to the vaccine.

Pakistan began its Covid-19 vaccination campaign first by inoculating health workers on Feb 2, 2021, a year after the first case was reported in February 2020. This was followed closely by senior citizens and gradually to everyone over 18 years of age.

According to health ministry’s data, by March 2022, of the total eligible population of a little over 143 million, more than 125m had received their first jab.

Dr Rana Imran Sikander, executive director at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences and who was then heading the Covid-19 ward there, was the first person in Pakistan to receive the shot from the batch of 500,000 Sinopharm vaccines received from China.

It was also the time when “myths and conspiracies abounded”, leading to hesitancy and fear of side effects. The more far-fetched conspiracy theories circulating in his hospital included ‘Bill Gates wants to reduce the world’s population,’ ‘the United States is injecting microchips into humans to make them their slaves,’ ‘Gates wants to alter their DNA’.

“Seeing me well and alive gave a huge boost to my co-workers,” said Sikander, who luckily has not caught Covid-19 even once. It could also be because he had also volunteered a dose six months prior to the official shot for the vaccine trial, he said.

Gallup Pakistan carried out 13 surveys (from March 2020 to January 2022) to understand people’s attitudes towards the pandemic. It also recorded the change in their perception towards the disease and the vaccine over a two-year period.

“The most alarming finding was that for close to 60 per cent of health professionals, social media was a key source of information, and as high as one in five doctors were not willing to take the vaccine,” Bilal I. Gilani, executive director at Gallup Pakistan, said. A consistent perception among Pakistanis in general, during all these months, he said, was “that Covid-19 was a foreign conspiracy”.

But how did the government manage to get 130m (above the age of 15) of the 250m Pakistanis vaccinated for at least two doses in two years (by May 2022) after the pandemic?

Asad Umar, the former planning minister who headed the National Command and Control Centre (NCOC), said the two most important ingredients — “transparency and sharing of real-time data with the media when Covid-19 struck” was how they managed to dispel misinformation.

“By the time we were ready to vaccinate the people, the media had become our allies and played a huge role in supporting us in fighting misinformation and even disinformation.”

The other reason was that “for a change, all political parties were on board, and there was across-the-board consensus and confidence on the decisions made by the NCOC,” he said. The center disbanded as quickly as it was formed. “It’s a good model and needs to be institutionalised if we are to fight any future catastrophes, natural or health,” said Asad Umar.

In July 2021, 76pc of Pakistanis claimed that the government was controlling the Covid-19 situation well, according to a Gallup survey, although it diminished to just 41pc by 2022.

A toll-free helpline, the Sehat Tahaffuz-1166, launched just before the pandemic in November 2019 to provide guidance for polio and its vaccine, was used to disseminate information about Covid-19.

Another task carried out successfully was by the brigade of female community health workers and vaccinators, who convinced people to get vaccinated.

For its part, Unicef helped the government in battling vaccine hesitancy on social media platforms.

“Through regular static posts and short videos, we communicated verified information about the vaccine’s efficacy. We posted messages from doctors, religious leaders, youth representatives, celebrities, community leaders, and even vaccinated individuals on our social media accounts,” Unicef’s communications specialist A. Sami Malik said.

In addition, it regularly organised live interactive sessions on FB, Twitter Space, and Instagram, with experts providing responses to people’s questions and concerns.—Courtesy IPS

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2023

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