COVID-19 pandemic has brought life to a standstill, jeopardizing day-to-day matters and socio-economic activities across the world. However, as the time passes, the world is gradually adapting to a ‘new normal’, believing that this new virus will remain with us for more years. Similarly, we have to care for certain aspects of COVID era like wearing a mask, sanitization, physical distancing, and tele/remote working for a long time as well. The fundamental questions that need to be addressed in this regard are: Why is it necessary to adapt to this ‘new normal’ at the earliest? Do the countries, like ours with lesser resources and lower literacy rate, have the capacity and infrastructure to opt for a life different from the usual one?
In Pakistan, we are almost one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the country falls into the category of those which are less impacted as compared to the developed world like the US, UK, and European Union. Owing to a comparatively low impact, a large chunk of the country’s population still does not realize the severity of this pandemic. Only a small pocket has the realization, which is generally faced with the mockery of public for its adherence to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). The biggest challenge thus is to adapt to this new normal in our daily habits to ensure smooth running of daily businesses without creating a significant risk to lives.
However, a collective thinking of the society including government, private sector, civil society, media, academia, and professional groups, can make people realize the significance and urgency to adapt to this new normal as early as possible, which according to World Health Organization, “can be a stepping-stone to a new future, with benefits of other health issues far beyond the response to COVID-19.”
Dr Nausheen Hamid, the Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination, said that the new normal is now a reality and there is a need to educate our communities in this regard. If we are able to vaccinate 70 million people by prioritizing the health practitioners, and the 60 plus of population, we would be able to create herd immunity and reduce the spread of the pandemic.” She said people’s response towards registration for the vaccination is not encouraging, ‘however, by building public trust, we can persuade them for vaccination. The government, in a bid to convince common people, intends to start an awareness campaign by vaccinating the high profiles, she said, adding that because of illiteracy, especially in the rural areas, we have to face resistance in educating people regarding the vaccination drive, however, the government is committed to vaccinating everyone by the end of this year. Only a change in lifestyle can make us able to start living with the virus and the new normal, she added. She further said the import of vaccines by the private sector on the one hand would be purchased by the well-off or those who are in a hurry, and on the other would lessen the burden on the national exchequer. She suggested that as pandemics can visit us again, so the only solution to cope with such situations is to upgrade our health infrastructure and equip our hospitals with modern scientific equipment.
Mr Hamza Shafqaat, the Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad, said that it is unfortunate that the new normal has been rejected by a large section of the society. “What we see is something abnormal.” He added that even after March 15, 2021, the SOPs will remain intact. A big resistance that we saw during lockdown and at present is from traders and business community. “The biggest challenge in the new normal will be the change in mindset of the public,” he said. He called for a collective action to educate and prepare people for the new normal through public campaigns. People should be educated about physical distancing instead of social distancing. Regarding the myths and fears related to vaccines, he stressed the need for developing a proper narrative by bringing a behavioural change, which is only possible by including Ulema and media influencers in the awareness drive.
Mr Mosharraf Zaidi, the Development Practitioner and Columnist, said that the government needs to prioritize the least privileged and health practitioners in administrating the vaccines. He said the implementation of policies and principles in connection with vaccination drive are more convoluted. “It is time to fully bring in practice the federation at all fronts, like the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), which is a great success. Administrative machinery in all the districts needs to be much more proactive. Had the local govt system been in place, it would have been a great tool for the implementation of SOPs and vaccination drive. He also highlighted the role of media and elected leaders for an excellent execution of the vaccination drive and awareness campaign. For all this to happen, we need a broader level of consensus among all the stakeholders for a more comprehensive plan of action, he said, adding that the anti-vaccine sentiments are not only limited to Pakistan, but advanced countries too are facing this dilemma. He said Pakistan has a limited capacity to cope up the challenges of vaccine administration drive. He said we need to address the issue of equality in the vaccines and maximize our capacity by discouraging the excessive privatization of health care system and related things.
Dr Abid Suleri, SDPI’s Executive Director, said that fortunately Pakistan’s performance in the times of COVID-19 was better than many other countries of the region, especially in the provision of social protection to the less privileged strata of the society. However, the new normal poses new challenges which require collective efforts from the all the stakeholders to not only immunize the population against the virus but also to adapt to the new normal.
- There is a dire need to launch an extensive awareness campaign in order to ensure adherence to the basic behaviours of the new normal. Ulema, media persons and other high-profile members of the society should be taken on board for an effective dissemination of the message and to build public trust in the vaccination process.
- Coordination between administrative bodies like the district commissioner offices across the country shall be established for an efficient communication and sharing of experiences and practices that has proved useful.
- As we ease the COVID SOPs that were in place last year, the need for an efficient health care system will increase. While ensuring proper adherence to the requirements of the ‘new normal’ and large-scale vaccination drive, there is a need to improve the health care systems at basic level and across the board.
(Note: This blog is the outcome of a webinar SDPI has organized as part of its campaign, ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’.)
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.