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EDITORIAL: There can be no better pat on the back for the anti-polio team than appreciation from Bill Gates himself.

The founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which is part of a global initiative between governments and international organisations fighting polio, said “Pakistan’s commitment to ending polio is inspiring”.

Such praise will no doubt act like a shot in the arm of the people fighting this crippling disease in the country. Most of the time when Pakistan and polio are mentioned in the same news item, it is also accompanied by a fair degree of criticism for being one of the only two countries in the world that haven’t been able to eliminate this disease completely.

And since the other is Afghanistan, which unfortunately has not had the opportunity to do much during four decades of war, Pakistan’s position is not very enviable.

But, as the PM explained to Bill Gates, Afghanistan’s problem is also the main reason for Pakistan’s problem; which is why incidence of polio is greater in districts in the border region. That’s one more reason for the international community to indulge, not isolate, the people and government of Afghanistan at this critical point in their history.

The Pakistani team deserves that much more praise because its members, as well as security forces accompanying them, face constant life threats from religious fanatics who run the ridiculous campaign that administering polio drops to our children is part of some grand western conspiracy to make future Pakistani generations infertile. And this narrative has found enough traction for terrorists to kill 36 frontline workers and 14 law enforcement personnel during vaccination campaigns.

Gates was clearly impressed by what he saw during the meeting that he chaired on polio at the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC). He cautioned that the endgame can be the most demanding part of this battle, but seemed confident that “Pakistan has an opportunity to make history by ending polio for good”.

Therefore, the government’s planning-and-execution has passed the litmus test; so it shouldn’t be too long before there is final victory in this long and painful struggle. Yet perhaps the one thing that the government can still do better, and which might help it win sooner rather than later, is erecting a comprehensive, overarching national narrative meant to counter the kind of nonsense that has slowed progress for so long.

If people are being poisoned against progress, and made to live in fear of a threat that doesn’t even exist, so much so that they are willing to risk the lives of their own children for it, then it is very much the state’s responsibility to knock some welcome sense into them.

Surely, Bill Gates and the like, who go out of their way to help countries like ours for no material reward, would struggle to grasp the depth of this particular problem in some of our more rural districts. Pakistan has far too many problems to contend with to be bogged down by diseases that almost all the world overcame long ago. This one not only diverts a lot of the state’s resources, but also raises the threat of terrorist attacks at a very sensitive time.

Hopefully, the government is now preparing for the final, decisive push against polio this time. The way its team has stuck to the task, come hell or high water or even Covid, is indeed admirable. Bill Gates accepted the PM’s offer to visit at just the right time; when Pakistan has set the standard of dealing with the coronavirus and is on the verge of overcoming polio forever. He should be invited once more when the job is well and truly done.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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