“No man is an island,” said English poet and cleric, John Dunne a long time ago. He finished this thought with: “Therefore, never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee”. He is referring to the church custom of ringing bells when someone had died in the community. In normal circumstances, John Donne may be true only metaphorically, but in the context of a deadly contagion, this should be considered gospel. The truth however is that Pakistanis believe either that they have somehow escaped the worst of it, or more ominously, that there was nothing to worry about in the first place. Meanwhile, new cases for the virus are climbing again. At the time of writing this, fresh cases stood at 2,258 (Mar-10) with a 7-day average of 1,723. Following a few months of quiet resilience, cases had started to climb in November again, remaining high until December and then beginning to slow down. It now seems that Pakistan may be stepping into a third wave.
With millions of vaccines already in production across the world, some anxiety should be alleviated, except that a) Pakistan might not get enough vaccines to cover its population but more importantly, b) its population may not want to get vaccinated. The former concern pales in comparison to the latter. A Gallup tracker had some alarming findings recently. Possibly the most relevant of the surveyor’s poll finding is that 49 percent of the respondents said they will not get vaccinated given the chance, even if it was free. Surprisingly, vaccine hesitancy started with healthcare workers. Anecdotally, a portion of them have refused to take the vaccine because of potential side-effects, many of which may not be supported by evidence. Though official data on vaccinations is hard to find (and as a result, meaningful analysis cannot be gleaned), according to Our World in Data, a total of 72,882 healthcare workers were inoculated out of the 500,000 Sinopharm vaccines available which is 0.03 vaccines for 100 people and 29 percent of the total doses available (since there is no demarcated data on how many people got the first dose and how many the full dose, the assumption here is that the ~72K people were fully inoculated).
There are more vaccines coming, in addition to Sinopharm. 17 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been secured from COVAX of which 7 million are on the way. In total, 45 million people may be received by the end of the year which is far from covering the population but may lower the threat significantly. Unless of course, if the population refuses to vaccinate which is starting to look like the biggest threat. According to the aforementioned Gallup tracker, more than half—57 percent of respondents—believed that the threat from covid-19 was exaggerated. An even higher number—63 percent Pakistanis were severely misinformed believing that people who did not appear to be sick (i.e., have any covid- related symptoms) could not spread the virus. Fake news, propaganda and conspiracy theories have certainly not run their course and have seemingly done a great damage (and continuing to do so).
The fact that a good share of those affected by the virus are asymptomatic has only deepened the scepticism on the existence and dangers of the virus. The survey found 77 percent of respondents who claimed to not know of anyone diagnosed with the virus while 89 percent said they did not know of anyone dying of the virus. Nearly 40 percent Pakistanis are not worried at all when someone around them is not wearing a mask in public spaces.
It should not come as a shock then that so far, only 180,000 citizens (of ages 65 years and above) have registered to be vaccinated which constitutes roughly 2.25 percent of the 8 million senior citizens in the country. This statistic in light of the fact that the virus is especially dangerous for older people should be turning some heads.
The answer is simple but the government needs to be up for it, and it needs to go beyond just arranging the (mostly free) jabs. Fake news—by virtue of its sheer scandalousness—tends to spread faster. The government needs to double up on its communication and advocacy strategy to fight propaganda and anti-vax sentiments and inform the publics about the absolute need for the vaccine, and massively work on creating trust and dismantling doubts amongst the populace through all mediums available. This needs to come from the top and, fast. Then there is seamless distribution. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are vaccination centres not entirely equipped (or prepared) to tackle the inflow of people, which needs to be tightened through better resource mobilization and management. Without these two interventions that need immediate attention from the government, any efforts to procure more vaccines will be more or less futile, because while that is certainly necessary, it will not be sufficient.