Tuesday September 21, 2021

Vaccinate, now

Pakistan’s total reported coronavirus cases crossed the one million mark recently, even though it is believed the actual number may be much higher owing to the country’s low testing numbers. With daily cases averaging around 2,000 in the past two weeks – a rate last witnessed towards the end of May and early June when the third wave was subsiding – there is sufficient reason for alarm, especially with the new variants of concern. The Delta variant is the most dangerous one to-date and has been identified as the dominant strain in 85 countries. It appears to be gaining ground in Pakistan too, though its exact footprint is hard to gauge due to our limited resources. Nevertheless, it’s potential for devastation cannot be taken lightly. The variant is wreaking havoc in places like Indonesia in similar ways to what transpired in India earlier this year from where it is believed to have originated. While in countries that had been faring relatively well, such as Australia and Vietnam, Delta’s intrusion has thrown a spanner in the works with cities of millions having gone into lockdowns after opening up, and masks being made mandatory after being eased earlier. Even in the US, where half of the population is fully inoculated, the variant is resulting in rising hospitalisation among unvaccinated segments. The writing on the wall is clear: vaccines are the best bet to successfully control the virus.

At present, around 25 million vaccine doses have been administered in Pakistan, and as stated many times here earlier, the figure is far behind from reaching any kind of protective shield from the coronavirus. With a purported fourth wave of the virus taking shape in the country, statistics from Sindh reveal that a vast majority – 85 percent – of those hospitalised from Covid-19 at present had not been vaccinated. These grim figures should be enough to compel people to take the vaccine, which appears to be well-stocked at the moment. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case, despite the government doubling down on its messaging by using data analytics recently to show that unvaccinated citizens are seven times more likely to contract the disease. On July 11, Planning Minister Asad Umar, who also heads the national coronavirus operations centre, revealed that only 20.6 percent of those aged 50 and above – totalling around 27.2 million and said to be the most vulnerable – have received at least one dose of the vaccine; he has urged those in the age group to get vaccinated.

With Sindh’s positivity ratio hovering around 10 percent and Karachi’s at over double that, the provincial government has announced a roll back of recently eased restrictions. Perhaps other governments should follow suit before it’s too late. And while the Sindh government’s decision to withhold salaries of unvaccinated government employees and proposal to block SIMs of those who refuse to vaccinate appear unjust and hard to implement, sadly, it seems only the threat of such sanctions may force the majority to successfully overcome vaccine hesitancy. Doctors operating vaccination centres believe the country’s inoculation drive was initially aided by the devastation in India, and later due to official and international vaccine requirements, leading to the present slump or inadequate acceleration. Persuading people to take the jab, as well as ensuring equitable and easy access, is a pressing test for the government, and one which requires out-of-the-box solutions reflecting our distinct ground realities. A good place to start would be to relaunch and revamp the lady health workers programme to reach remote areas, immediately restore local government bodies that enjoy unparalleled access into neighbourhoods, and encourage NGOs and the private sector to pitch in. The challenge ahead is a mammoth one and demands the complete attention of the government, opposition, and every member of the public.