MINISTER for Planning and Development Asad Umar shared ‘good news’ on Twitter on Saturday that the country would receive up to 17 million doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during the first half of 2021 under COVAX — a global initiative coordinated by the Wealth Health Organization (WHO) aiming to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all countries. He said delivery would start in February and Pakistan would get 6 million vaccines by March.
The Government is, no doubt, striving hard to firm up arrangements with multiple sources for procurement of the maximum number of doses of the vaccines and it is encouraging that apart from COVAX, our friendly countries China and Russia have agreed to extend fullest possible cooperation for the purpose. Beijing has donated five hundred thousand vaccines and a special flight has been sent to China for bringing the phase consignment that would enable the authorities to initiate the inoculation campaign, beginning from frontline health workers. After coverage of the medical staff, people above the age of 65 years will be inoculated by the end of February. Despite all this, the arrangements so far made for procurement of vaccines can be described as peanuts if one considers the level of scheduled coverage and the total population of the country, which stands at 210 million. That effectively means prolongation of the sufferings of the people both in terms of health hazards and impact on socio-economic life. The situation is so precarious that in a comprehensive report, CNN has described it as ‘tsunami of patients’ quoting famous hospitals and health experts that are engaged in the efforts to combat the battle against the virus. So far, Pakistan has officially recorded more than half a million cases of Covid-19, and more than 11,600 related deaths but it is a foregone conclusion that these numbers are just tip of an iceberg as testing is not sufficient to reflect the true picture. The virus has infected the majority of families in almost all parts of the country and people above 60 and those with medical complications are at greater risk.
While focus is legitimately on procurement of maximum number of vaccines to cover more people but Federal and Provincial Governments ought not to lower their guards as far as testing and readiness to deal with patients is concerned. This is because COVAX aims to cover just 20% population in the developing countries whereas vaccination is already at advance stages in the resourceful countries, which are procuring vaccines from different sources through bilateral as well as multilateral arrangements. It was with this in view that Prime Minister Imran Khan, during his address to the UN Conference on Trade and Development on January 25, called for more to be done to vaccinate more in the developing world. He pointed out that it will take much longer for the vaccine to fully cover the global south and, therefore, the coverage of the COVAX facility must be expanded. This will enable the developing countries to spend their precious resources on socio-economic development needs. The international community especially the United Nations should take serious notice of the point raised by the Prime Minister as apart from increased casualties, the developing countries would end up spending their scant resources on efforts to deal with the virus leaving not much for their socio-economic needs.
Rich countries should follow the good example set by Singapore, which has pledged $5 million to COVAX to fund vaccines for poorer countries. The affluent countries must realize that mere immunization of their populations would not resolve the problem that has global dimensions and, therefore, a united approach is the only solution. It is also time for Pakistan authorities to make foolproof arrangements for proper storage of the vaccines as some of them require special cold storage facilities. The announcement of the NCOC that necessary measures have been put in place for vaccine storage at Islamabad and its transportation to various federating units particularly to Sindh and Balochistan through air is satisfying. A central control cell has been established at the NCOC while dedicated cells have also been set up at provincial and district levels for the vaccination drive. A special awareness campaign will also have to be initiated to help fight misconception and conspiracy theories about the presence of virus and vaccination campaign.