New virus, new fears: Pakistan’s polio teams mobilized to fight COVID-19

A Pakistani health worker administers polio vaccine drops to an Afghan refugee child during a polio vaccination campaign in Lahore on June 19, 2019. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 01 June 2020

New virus, new fears: Pakistan’s polio teams mobilized to fight COVID-19

  • In absence of protective equipment, healthcare workers in northwestern province fear for safety
  • This year, 49 cases of poliovirus detected in Pakistan but large scale immunization facilities have been diverted

PESHAWAR/ LAHORE: Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, has spent the last week in fear. Every morning, he checks his temperature for fever and then monitors himself for signs of the flu.

The 37-year-old’s paranoia is not unfounded. A day before Eid holidays, Khan had to check up on a man in his area who had tested positive for the deadly coronavirus. 
“He had all the symptoms of the virus,” the health care worker told Arab News. “Symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear in an infected person. So I am very scared. Seven more days till I am safe.”




Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in  Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar, marks shops and mosques in his area to ensure people follow social distancing rules on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Kaleemullah Khan)

For Khan, being on the front lines of fighting a major healthcare emergency is nothing new. For eight years, he has been working for the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to eradicate the wild poliovirus.

But this new disease it different. It is more intimidating.

“For polio, we would go to people’s homes to talk to them, give drops, organize seminars in small rooms,” Khan said. “We did all this without fear because we knew we would not get the virus.”
“Now you just don’t know.”




Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in  Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar, marks shops and mosques in his area to ensure people follow social distancing rules on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Kaleemullah Khan)

Khan lives with his wife, two small daughters and his old parents. He says he is always worried about bringing the virus home.

Till March 22, the father of two was preforming his routine duties of administering anti-polio drops to young children. Then suddenly the polio program was put on hold and Khan and other health care workers were reassigned to fight a new virus– COVID-19.

Since polio is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries in the world where the disease has not been eliminated, the national polio program had footprints in even smaller administrative units of the country. That is why state officials turned to the polio staff to help track down coronavirus carriers.

Khan’s job now entails tracing people who have arrived in the province from other countries, checking them for symptoms, spreading awareness about safety protocols and reporting on those who violate the government’s lockdown rules. 




Kaleemullah Khan, a healthcare worker in  Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar, marks shops and mosques in his area to ensure people follow social distancing rules on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Kaleemullah Khan)

He completes his daily 12-hour shift with only a face mask, gloves and a hand sanitizer to protect him.

“People in our culture, they always want to hug or shake hands to greet you,” he says, “It difficult to maintain a distance here.”

In March, the government prepared national guidelines on COVID-19 and PPEs (personal protection equipment) for the rational utilization of hazmat suits.

Those conducting “in-person interviews” of suspected or confirmed patients and their contacts, the document outlines, will be given an N95 mask, a gown, gloves and eye protection.

But KP’s polio staff members are making do with much less.
Muzdalifa Ilyas, a polio staff member in Peshawar, only covers herself with an abaya, wears a pair of gloves and a face mask while moving through neighborhoods. “That is what our getup looks like,” she told Arab News.
 “We don’t have PPE gowns. But we do have sanitizers which we use regularly.”




Muzdalifa Ilyas, a polio staff member in Peshawar, now works to fight coronavirus in the region on May 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Muzdalifa Ilyas)

For Ilyas and her colleagues, the bulk of their work includes reporting violators to the district administration in the province- shopkeepers, business owners and mosque staff who are not following the government’s standard operating procedures (SOPS) which were put in place in May when the Prime Minister allowed more business and industrial sectors to open. 

Rizwana Dar Khan Wazir, the assistant commissioner in Peshawar, has so far fined 400-500 violators and collected Rs 800,000 in fines. 
“We fine 30-40 people daily,” she told Arab News over the phone. 

Although healthcare workers like Ilyas and Khan are now deployed full time to combat the coronavirus, they are still required to track and report cases of polio virus in the country. “We are doing both things simultaneously,” Khan said. “If there is a new case of paralysis in a child we have to report it.”

This year, 49 cases of wild poliovirus type 1 have been recorded in Pakistan, according to Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, the National Coordinator for Polio Eradication in Pakistan.

Safdar told Arab News that since the “country’s fragile health system was seriously challenged” with the outbreak of the coronavirus, the polio program had to be put on hold and all its facilities diverted.

Now, the field staff, he explained, helps in tracing potential high risk international travelers and their contacts, while the religious clerics they had on board for their polio program are promoting social distancing in mosques.

Separately, Safdar and his team are also compiling data of the coronavirus for the ministry of health and using social media to bust myths about the disease.

In a recent meeting of the national polio management team, he revealed, it was decided to resume supplementary immunization campaigns for polio in July till routine and mass campaigns can be restarted. The supplementary campaign will administer the oral polio vaccine in areas where cases have been detected recently, while also following government-mandated safety protocols for the coronavirus.

By the end of the year, three nationwide polio campaigns will be launched back-to-back to make up for missed time. 

“Personally, I feel sad that our efforts of pushing polio virus back had to be halted just as we were gaining momentum,” Dr. Safdar said. “But I am glad that our program was able to build a robust surveillance system for COVID-19 which is helping in the quick detection, isolation and contact tracing of patients in every corner of Pakistan.”


Pakistan ready to hand Test debut to 36-year-old seamer Tabish

Updated 06 May 2021

Pakistan ready to hand Test debut to 36-year-old seamer Tabish

  • Tabish has been a consistent performer at the domestic level in Pakistan with 598 first-class wickets
  • Skipper Babar Azam says Pakistan next series is in the West Indies and he wants to have a settled Test squad for that

HARARE: Pakistan could hand a surprise Test debut to 36-year-old seamer Tabish Khan in the second Test against Zimbabwe starting on Friday.
Tabish has been a consistent performer at the domestic level in Pakistan with 598 first-class wickets.
Pakistan routed Zimbabwe by an innings and 116 runs in the first match in Harare and are keen to explore their fast bowling reserves ahead of a three-Test tour of the West Indies in July and August.
If he does play, Tabish will not be the oldest man to make his Pakistan Test bow.
That honor belongs to Miran Bux who was 47 years and 284 days old when he played against India at Lahore in the 1954-55 season.
Pakistan will be aiming to complete a clean sweep of series wins on their southern Africa tour.
They defeated South Africa in one-day and T20 series before moving north to win a T20 series against Zimbabwe.
Pakistan dominated the first Test on a slow Harare pitch, with Hasan Ali mainly responsible for bowling out the home side for under 200 in both innings.
Hasan had match figures of nine for 89.
Fawad Alam hit a century for Pakistan in a solid batting performance in which the only top-order batsman to fail was skipper Babar Azam, who was out first ball to Donald Tiripano.
But if it was a rare batting failure for Pakistan’s star, Babar had the satisfaction of becoming the first Pakistan captain to win his first three Tests in charge — a record which he will be expected to improve upon in the coming days.
“We won the first Test with great confidence and will take that momentum into the second Test,” Babar said Thursday.
“We need to play like that as we want to end the Africa tour on a high.
“Our next series is in the West Indies which will be totally different so we want to have a settled Test squad.”
Zimbabwe’s slim prospects of levelling the series suffered a further blow on Thursday when three leading batsmen were ruled out of the Test.
Opening batsman Prince Masvaure will be missing after suffering a fractured left thumb while fielding in the first Test.
The experienced duo of Sean Williams and Craig Ervine will again be absent, having failed to recover fully from injuries which kept them out of the opener.
Brendan Taylor will again stand in as captain in place of Williams.
Zimbabwe Cricket announced in a statement that Wesley Madhevere had been added to the squad, while the uncapped Takudzwanashe Kaitano, who was added as cover for the first Test, had been retained.
Madhevere, 20, has shown promise in white-ball internationals but failed to score in all three innings in his debut Test series against Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi in March.


With new restrictions, Pakistan's Sindh province to close restaurants, grocery stores by evening

Updated 06 May 2021

With new restrictions, Pakistan's Sindh province to close restaurants, grocery stores by evening

  • Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah says the provincial administration will also shut down recreational facilities after Sunday to curb the coronavirus spread
  • The provincial administration of Sindh may ask the federal government to ban passenger train services during the Eid holidays 

KARACHI: The provincial administration of Sindh on Thursday decided to implement COVID-19 restrictions across the province more strongly as health authorities warned that Karachi alone had recorded a positivity ratio of 14.32 percent.
The decision was announced at a time when hundreds of thousands of residents in the seaside metropolis thronged markets on Thursday afternoon due to limited shopping hours, causing extreme traffic congestion.
Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah decided to close all shops, including grocery stores, after 6 p.m. while chairing a meeting of a COVID-19 taskforce. He also announced that restaurants would not be allowed to offer takeaway facility after iftar during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“We will further tighten the enforcement of standard operating procedures after Sunday by closing Hawksbay, Sea View and other such recreational facilities for visitors,” he was quoted in an official handout circulated by the CM House.
The meeting was told that new coronavirus infections were on the rise in Karachi where the positivity ratio stood at 14.32 percent “which was quite dangerous.”
It was also pointed out that COVID-19 cases were on a decline in Hyderabad, another city of the province, where new coronavirus cases had declined to 11.92 percent on Wednesday from 20 percent on 29th April.
According to the provincial administration, authorities had tried to implement health safety precautions by imposing a fine on 627 people in Karachi on May 5. The district administration of the city also sealed 64 shops, arrested seven people and warned 369 others.
“People do not understand the situation,” the chief minister told the meeting. “One should only leave one’s residence for valid reasons after taking necessary precautions these days.”
The participants of the meeting urged the chief minister to talk to the federal government to ban passenger train services during Eid holidays to further prevent the spread of the virus.
Provincial health minister Dr. Azra Fazal Pechuho told the meeting that authorities in Sindh had revived quarantine facilities at local hotels and enhanced virus testing. She added that import of small-scale oxygen generation plants was also in progress.
Meanwhile, traders in Karachi expressed their disappointment at the provincial administration’s decision, accusing the health authorities of aggravating the situation by limiting the number of shopping hours that crowded the markets.
“If the markets are following their usual routine, it doesn’t lead to congestion and it is also easier for us to deal with people,” Shafiq Ahmed, a shop owner at Tariq Road, told Arab News. “Now the whole city is here to shop, and you can look at the situation.”
Agreeing with the traders, Sobia Shah, a costumer, said she would have done her shopping somewhere at night in normal situation.
“Now everyone wants to shop during the few hours available to them,” she added.


Pakistan begins to locally prepare, package China’s CanSino vaccine

Updated 06 May 2021

Pakistan begins to locally prepare, package China’s CanSino vaccine

  • National Institute of Health hopes to roll out over 100,000 doses by the end of May
  • Officials say Pakistan has procured enough raw material to produce 120,000 jabs of the single-dose vaccine

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has started putting together China’s single-dose CanSino vaccine with imported raw materials and hopes to prepare 100,000 shots before rolling them out in local packaging by the end of the month, a local media outlet quoted the National Institute of Health (NIH) as saying on Thursday.
The country received a major shipment of CanSino vaccines from China on Wednesday and hopes to receive over 1.2 million doses through the COVAX program for poor nations by Friday. 
“The raw material is enough to produce 120,000 doses of CanSino vaccines,” NIH authorities were quoted by Geo News as saying. “The [locally packaged] jabs will be available by the end of the current month.”
The World Health Organization is currently reviewing China’s COVID-19 vaccines for global emergency use. So far, Beijing has mostly exported the vaccines to developing nations, though a favorable verdict by the WHO may help address the low vaccine distribution problem worldwide and significantly increase the pace of the global immunization campaign.
Pakistan has largely relied on Chinese vaccines, though a private firm also imported a limited number of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which were administered last month. 
Federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar has said Pakistan has improved the pace of its coronavirus immunization drive and is now vaccinating over 200,000 people daily. Less than 3 million people have been vaccinated so far in the nation of 220 million.


Put idle capacity in countries like Pakistan to work making vaccines — WTO head

Updated 06 May 2021

Put idle capacity in countries like Pakistan to work making vaccines — WTO head

  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urges governments to use production capacity in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Indonesia and Senegal 
  • Production needed to rise from 5 billion doses produced today to the 10.8 billion being forecast for this year to 15 billion

GENEVA: The world cannot act soon enough to put idle manufacturing capacity to work making COVID-19 vaccines to help redress a massive imbalance in global supply, the head of the World Trade Organization said on Wednesday.
WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatments was “both the moral and economic issue of our time”. The World Health Organization said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2 percent had been in low-income countries.
Okonjo-Iweala told a meeting of the 164-member WTO that those who had ordered more vaccines than they needed must share with others. Members should also address export restrictions and bureaucracy disrupting vital medical supply chains.
She urged governments to work with manufacturers to use production capacity available in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Senegal that could be turned around in a matter of months.
Production needed to rise from the 5 billion doses produced today to the 10.8 billion being forecast for this year to 15 billion, in particular if booster doses would be needed.
The debate on vaccine inequity at the WTO has centered a proposal by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights, at least for the duration of the pandemic.
Ten meetings of WTO members have failed to achieve a breakthrough and Wednesday’s online gathering was no different as 42 countries gave their views. However, members also heard that India and South Africa intend to refine their proposal before another discussion later in May.
Okonjo-Iweala said she was happy to hear of the revised text.
“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward,” she said, referring to a balance between developing country demands while protecting research and innovation.


Pakistan to be added to Amazon sellers list ‘within few days’ — PM’s aide

Updated 06 May 2021

Pakistan to be added to Amazon sellers list ‘within few days’ — PM’s aide

  • Pakistani sellers previously couldn’t register on Amazon, had to create shadow accounts registered in other countries
  • It is still not clear if global online marketplace will be opening an office in Pakistan though exporters encourage it

ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: Pakistani exporters will be able to register themselves with international e-commerce giant Amazon “within a few days,” the Pakistani commerce chief said on Thursday.
The announcement comes as Amazon works to take advantage of the boost the COVID-19 pandemic has given to e-commerce in South Asian economies.
Pakistani sellers were previously not allowed to register on the global online marketplace and had to create shadow accounts registered in other countries.
“Amazon will be adding Pakistan [to] its sellers list within a few days,” Abdul Razak Dawood, who advises Prime Minister Imran Khan on commerce and industry, said on Twitter.


Approaching Amazon was a major part of the country’s first ever e-commerce policy, approved in October 2019. Once Pakistani sellers are registered, they may consider opening warehouses abroad to ensure speedy delivery to consumers.
“It [is] an excellent opportunity for our youth, SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises], and women entrepreneurs,” Dawood said. “An important milestone of the e-commerce policy has been achieved through teamwork by many people across the globe.”
Pakistan’s e-commerce industry stood at approximately Rs99 billion in FY18 as compared to Rs51.8 billion in FY17, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
However, Internet retail in Pakistan is still at its nascent stage despite more than 177 million cellular subscribers, 90.5 million 3G/4G users, 100 million broadband customers, and total tele-density of over 84 percent.
“All companies and exporters fulfilling the registration criteria will be allowed to list themselves with Amazon to sell their products,” Aisha Humera Moriani, a joint secretary at the commerce ministry, told Arab News.
She said Pakistan had successfully completed a pilot project with Amazon in which 38 exporters had participated who were now eligible to fully utilize the platform.
“Amazon is completing some technical formalities and will be open for us within a couple of days,” she said.
It is not clear at this stage if the global online marketplace will be opening an office in Pakistan.
The country’s exporters welcomed the initiative, urging the government to devise a smooth payment mechanism and facilitate them with a hassle-free remittance mechanism.
“It’s a great opportunity for Pakistani entrepreneurs,” Khurram Mukhtar, patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Textile Exporters Association, told Arab News. “However, it will be difficult for us to fully benefit from it without an international payment gateway. We will also have to invest in our logistics to compete with the rest of the world.”
Zeeshan Tariq, chairman of the Surgical Instruments Manufacturers Association of Pakistan, concurred.
“Amazon or PayPal should open their offices in Pakistan because if our customers won’t be able to make direct payments for their purchases, we won’t be able to sell them our goods as well,” Tariq said.
However, he said this was a positive development for Pakistani exporters as it would allow them to directly interact with global customers and develop their brand identity in the international market.
“The challenge now,” Tariq said, “is to exploit this opportunity to our advantage as much as we can.”