Imran Khan at his home in Islamabad. Pakistan's prime minister has tested positive for Covid-19 and is isolating at his home. Image Credit: AFP File

Pakistan is facing the fourth wave of coronavirus infections. If proof of this was needed, it has come in the shape of the country’s prime minister Imran Khan and his wife testing positive last week.

Not that the infection’s spread required celebrity endorsement; officials have been speaking of sudden spike in the numbers of infections and deaths; doctors and health specialists too have raised their threat assessment level to near red. But when the country’s prime minister, who was filmed getting vaccinated a few days ago, gets the infection, the urgency of the situation gets highlighted like never before.

For most Pakistanis, however, this big breaking news did not alter much except that now they are faced with yet another phase of intermittent lockdowns based on the infection data compiled by the local authorities. Weekend business shut down, strict implementation of social distancing, and ban on social gatherings are some of the guidelines that officialdom has released for public consumption and compliance.

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This may sound boringly familiar to a nation that has had a roller-coaster ride on the pandemic trail, going through the first, the second and the third wave in a span of a year without really knowing when one ended and the other started except for what they heard in official statements on news networks regarding these baffling ebbs and flows.

The only new element in the fourth wave is the vaccination drive that the government claims it has started in all earnest even if the supplies are slow to arrive and Pakistan is yet to complete the first round of administrating the antidotes to its elderly population. But this element too is not without arguments that are not scientifically supported but still are effective enough to get the tongues wagging and propagating dangerous doubts about the need for getting vaccinated.

Social media and gossip-peddlers

Social media is filled with gossip-peddlers who openly take issue with solid data that points to the co-relation between declining infections and vaccinations and thus reinforce the perception that the virus will go away on its own.

The government is trying to dispel these false impressions but its hands for now are tied by the fact that the vaccination drive has not become a national endeavour on account of the supply-side issues.

China continues to send in doses in millions but that these are yet to generate the national hype in a country of 220 million people, most of whom live in far-flung areas away from the urban centers and are not always plugged into the more informed debate about the pandemic.

Also, with supplies being either intermittent or arriving slower than the rising numbers defined as the fourth wave, public interest in the subject of vaccination is more academic than health-concerns driven. “We will believe it when we see it arrive at our doorstep” is the kind of attitude most Pakistanis have regarding vaccination.

Waking up rather late to the vaccine availability need, the Drug Regulatory Authority has started for the first time the process of notifying the formula for the sale of Covid vaccines. But the caveat is that these vaccines are not allowed to be sold on the market nor distributed in the private sector and only approved private sector institutions and hospitals are allowed to administer them.

Issues around pricing

The price issue is going to be the second biggest challenge in terms of convincing the public that they ought to accept the grim reality that corona can’t be simply wished away. Sino, sells at over Rs4,000 for single dose as compared with the Russian Sputnik V that is twice the price tag.

The public would be more open to free vaccination as dipping in the pockets for a seemingly affordable counter to a grave health risk is a tough decision for the vast majority struggling with grim financial issues.

As more vaccines arrive the rate of vaccination will rise too but there is no guarantee that the controversies surrounding this most crucial element of combating coronavirus will also go away.

In a deeply fractured political environment every step on the way to fighting coronavirus will be hotly debated and facts will be contested. From the beneficiaries of the import of vaccines, to their prices to their efficacy, everything is up for becoming a football in the realm of colliding, clashing views.

While everyone is welcome to their opinions (and in most cases to their facts as well) the bottom-line should be clear to all — there is no getting around the pandemic without mounting a concerted whole of nation effort that is speedy in spreading the vaccination network and focused on making the people observe precautions. Taking eyes off this ball can have calamitous consequences.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12