Pakistan kicks off COVID vaccination drive for senior citizens

Pakistan begins vaccinating people over 60 against the coronavirus, kicking off the second phase of a countrywide campaign.

Basharat Ali Zaidi was among the first senior citizens to receive the vaccine in Pakistan [Abdullah Zaidi/Al Jazeera]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan has begun vaccinating citizens over the age of 60 against the coronavirus, officials say, kicking off the second phase of a countrywide campaign that has seen a slow start so far.

Senior citizens across the country began to receive the first dose of the vaccine at adult vaccination centres on Wednesday, after the country’s health minister announced the launch of the new phase of the campaign earlier this week.

“I knew that as soon as the vaccine comes, I must take it,” said Basharat Ali Zaidi, 88, a retired telecom engineer in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, who was among the first senior citizens to receive the vaccine.

“I spoke to my son about it, we registered online and [at the vaccination centre today] filled out the form and […] then after two or four questions about whether I had any allergies … they gave me the vaccine,” he said.

More than 300,000 people aged over 60 have registered to receive the vaccine, Health Minister Dr Faisal Sultan told Al Jazeera.

“[The] process started today – prioritising with the oldest citizens, that is over 80, and [we] will work our way down. The over-60 registration is around 300,000 to date but increasing every day,” he said.

The senior citizens have been instructed to register themselves using their government-issued National Identity Card numbers via SMS.

After their details are verified against a government database, they will be issued instructions on when and where to receive the vaccine.

Vaccine recipients will be asked to remain on-site at the vaccination centres for roughly 30 minutes after receiving the vaccine to monitor for any side-effects.

Drive slow to pick up

In February, Pakistan kicked off its vaccination campaign by targeting front-line healthcare workers with doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, donated by China, at 279 vaccination centres.

Uptake was slow to pick up, however, with many healthcare workers expressing concerns regarding the safety or efficacy of the vaccine, officials and experts told Al Jazeera.

Vaccine uptake has also been affected by relative public indifference to the coronavirus, as Pakistan’s experience of COVID-19 has been less severe than many other countries.

As of Wednesday, the country had registered 595,239 cases of the vaccine, with 13,324 deaths since the pandemic began last year.

The country has seen a markedly lower rate of severe disease and death as compared with many European and other countries, according to government data.

The last two weeks, however, have seen a steady increase in daily infections, as most government-mandated restrictions on large gatherings were removed and schools reopened.

On Wednesday, the country’s National Command Operation Centre (NCOC) on the coronavirus reimposed a number of restrictions, including a countrywide mask mandate, recommending a 50 percent work-from-home policy for offices, and reintroducing a 10pm time limit for commercial activities.

The NCOC also said it was cancelling an earlier decision to allow indoor weddings, indoor dining and the opening of cinemas and shrines from next week.

Basharat Ali Zaidi at a vaccination centre for senior citizens in Karachi, Pakistan [Abdullah Zaidi/Al Jazeera]

Currently, the country has vaccinated about 200,000 healthcare workers, putting it near last on the list of countries to have begun vaccinations, with 0.09 doses per 100 citizens.

The government has since begun to roll out an awareness campaign on television and other media to encourage people to register to be vaccinated, as well as to dispel misinformation regarding the vaccine.

Pakistan is due to receive 14.6 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX initiative, with the first shipment to arrive this month.

Last week, Sultan, the health minister, told Al Jazeera he expected the vaccination campaign to pick up momentum as more people received the vaccine, helping to assuage others’ concerns regarding possible side-effects.

“Other members of the family did have some concerns [about side-effects],” said Abdullah Zaidi, vaccine recipient Basharat Ali Zaidi’s son. “But they have asked me to register them now that my father is back. I think it does [assuage concerns].”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera