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What can we expect from a coronavirus vaccination campaign if polio workers are still being killed?

What can we expect from a coronavirus vaccination campaign if polio workers are still being killed?

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There is much concern of what will happen once the coronavirus vaccine lands in Pakistan; first and foremost, with an initial 1.1 million doses being procured for a population of 220 million, who will be vaccinated – will the doses actually reach frontline healthcare workers or can we expect the corrupt to get their hands on them before the doctors who are risking their lives on the daily? The remaining 45 million doses that are to be provided by the United Nation’s Covax mechanism again will only cover 20% of Pakistanis.

But the number of vaccines remains secondary if people themselves are not only unwilling but also pose a threat to the vaccination campaign itself.

While Pakistan did not bear the brunt of the pandemic with a total tally of 511,921 cases, as compared to neighbouring India that has cases numbering in millions, the spread of misinformation regarding coronavirus has been rampant during the last year with many still adamantly refusing to follow SOPs mandated by the government. The numbers have also given people a false sense of security, when viewed in comparison to what happed in the US or China itself, increasing their reluctance in following safety measures.

In August 2020, following the peak of the first coronavirus outbreak, an alarming 70% of Pakistanis believed the coronavirus threat to be grossly exaggerated and 55% believed the pandemic to be a foreign conspiracy. In light of this and the recent killing of a policeman guarding polio vaccinators who was gunned down in KP’s Karak district, how much success can be expected from a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign?

If we are to look at Pakistan’s ongoing polio campaign, it paints a dim future

The country has been trying to eradicate polio since the 1970s and while outreach remained the main problem in the earlier decades, what polio workers have to combat now is misinformation campaigns, threats of physical retribution and extremist mindsets. As a result, Pakistan remains one of only three countries in the world where polio is still festering.

‘In 2015 the government had to prove that the vaccine used was not ‘Haram’. A laboratory under the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan tested the vaccine and certified it as Halal. This was in response to a persistent rumour that the oral vaccine had hormones added to it to make children sterile.’

The Guardian
Relatives sitting beside the body of Nasreen Bibi, 35, a polio vaccinator who was shot and killed during a campaign to eradicate the disease. Reuters.

In 2019 Babar bin Atta, the PM’s former focal person on polio eradication, stated, “Rumours and propaganda spread over social media platforms have been fuelling misconceptions about the vaccine and have accelerated refusals to vaccines across the country.” In the summer of the same year, a video of a man falsely claiming that the polio vaccine had made his students fall sick and unconscious in Peshawar went viral on social media, worrying parents further about the safety of the vaccine and making the job of the workers even more difficult. Other misinformation that has spread about the polio vaccine in the past is that it contains pig fat and alcohol or that it can cause sterilisation. While the government has employed the assistance of many religious scholars to dispel myths about the polio vaccine in the country, certain extremist elements are still harming the cause.

Maulana Fazlullah is one such example, the leader of a banned militant organisation, who launched a campaign against the polio vaccination drive by giving daily sermons through the radio and mosque speakers saying the vaccine was an American ploy to sterilise and reduce the population of Muslims.

How badly was the polio vaccination drive damaged by C.I.A’s ruse?

In Pakistan, where polio has never been eliminated, the C.I.A.’s decision to send a vaccination team into the Bin Laden compound to gather information and DNA samples clearly hurt the national polio drive.

NYT

Following the fake Hepatitis B. vaccination drive led by Dr. Shakil Afridi and organised by the C.I.A. in Abbottabad to track down Osama bin Laden, not only did the relations between Islamabad and Washington suffer but legitimate polio workers in the area came under intense scrutiny as well. In the aftermath, Taliban commanders in two districts banned polio vaccination teams, saying they could not operate until the United States ended its drone strikes.

Pakistani media personnel and local residents gather outside the hideout of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011. AFP PHOTO/ AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images) 

Dr. Elias Durry, the World Health Organization’s polio coordinator for Pakistan, however was of the opinion that such a setback would not be insurmountable, stating, “Unless it spreads or is a very longtime affair, the program is not going to be seriously affected.”

Why did Pakistan’s polio campaign come to a halt in 2019?

In 2019, 260,000 frontline workers were involved in the vaccine campaign but it had to be shutdown after the constant targeting of campaign workers.

On 23 April, a police officer responsible for protecting polio workers was gunned down in Bannu. On the same day, a man attacked a polio worker with a knife in Lahore after seeing a video that claimed the vaccine was unsafe. Other fatalities included a police officer in Buner and a 35 year old female polio worker in Chaman. Further attacks were also reported from Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan.

Security officials investigating an attack by gunmen on a polio vaccination team on Thursday that left one woman dead in the town of Chaman, in Pakistan.
Credit…Asghar Achakzai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the beginning of 2020, two polio workers were killed when their team came under attack in Swabi’s Parmoli area by unidentified men who opened fire on them.

Will the future of a nationwide coronavirus vaccination campaign be any better?

While the government is doing its bit in resuming the polio vaccination campaign, perhaps more effort should be placed on disempowering extremist elements who continue to spread propaganda and misinformation. If not, the same ruses that have been used to impede the polio vaccination drive can be employed to put a halt to a coronavirus vaccination drive in the future.

The turbulent history of our country has proven time and time again that extremist groups use religion as a tool to enrage the masses and exert political pressure. Unless the root cause of the problem is addressed, progress cannot be expected in a country which is constantly derailed by the whims of men who undermine not only the constitution but also pose a threat to political stability.

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