Pakistan cuts 11,000 polio jobs due to restructuring, funding cuts

A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a polio vaccination door-to-door campaign in Lahore on July 20, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Pakistan cuts 11,000 polio jobs due to restructuring, funding cuts

  • Most workers who lost jobs are women from the provinces of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
  • Many of them are still looking for new sources of earning and are living on borrowed money

LAHORE: At least 11,000 health care workers of Pakistan’s anti-polio campaign, who were also mobilized to fight the coronavirus, have lost their jobs since June due to the restructuring and funding cuts of the anti-polio program, Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, coordinator for the country’s National Emergency Operation Center for polio eradication, told Arab News on Tuesday.
Majority of those laid off are women who were performing their duties in the provinces of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The two federating units have also witnessed maximum number of polio cases this year and host the “core reservoirs” of the polio virus, Safdar added.
So far, Pakistan has reported 64 poliovirus cases this year, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recording the highest number (22) followed by Sindh (21).
The decision to reduce the polio staff was made late last year, he continued. During a review in Islamabad, attended by the former special assistant to prime minister on health, Dr. Zafar Mirza, it was decided to change the approach of the campaign and the working modalities of the on-ground teams.
Earlier, health care workers would be employed for the entire month and paid up to Rs. 25,000.
“The nature of employment is now changed,” Safdar explained. Under new rules, lady health care workers are only hired for 10 days in parts of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and paid a daily amount, rather than for the whole month.
In a letter, dated April 23, seen by Arab News, the Emergency Operations Center for the polio eradication program in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa instructed government authorities to scale down the community-based vaccination strategy in the province, “keeping in view funding constraints and challenges.”
“Consequently, funding has not been secured for these Union Councils [administrative units] beyond May 30,” the letter added.
Safdar admitted finances were among the reasons for job losses. “Overall, donor attention was diverted because of the coronavirus,” he explained. “But we tried to negotiate with them to ensure that our planned campaigns were not affected.”
Pakistan recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus on February 26. As the caseload increased, door-to-door polio immunization campaigns were suspended in March, only to resume on a smaller scale in July.
According to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program, the country will launch a sub-national polio eradication campaign this week to vaccinate 34 million children under the age of five in 130 districts.
According to the trade union, the Polio Worker Action Committee, the government has sacked 13,000 workers: 11,000 of them are from Sindh and over 2,000 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A polio coordinator working in KP, however, gave a more precise figure, saying 1,992 staff members were laid off in the province.
Farzana Arshad, 45, remained part of the anti-polio campaigns in Peshawar since 2016. On May 1, she was told through a text message that her services were no longer required.
Her monthly earning of Rs. 24,500 ended abruptly, and she is unsure how to pay for the education of her three children. “They took away our job during the pandemic,” she told Arab News over the phone from her home in Peshawar.
Recently, she was contacted again and asked to rejoin the program, but she was told that her contract would only be for 10 days, implying that she would earn less than half of her previous salary.
“In the last four years, I was threatened, followed home by people on motorcycles, but I kept working,” she said. “I am poor. I have to work to support my family.”
Arshad and other community health care workers like her were also diverted in March to help track down contacts of COVID-19 cases in different parts of the country.
Shabana, a single mother of one in Karachi, was also sacked in May. She received the message from the program during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, only a few days short of Eid Al-Fitr, making her bitterly cry. Remembering that moment, the 28-year-old told Arab News that her job was her only source of income.
“The whole country told us we were heroes for fighting coronavirus and polio together,” she said over the phone. “Is this how you treat your heroes?” 
Ghausuddin, who heads the Polio Workers’ Action Committee, held a press conference in Karachi in June to highlight the plight of the fired health care workers. “Most of the women are still sitting at home and are unable to find work,” he told Arab News. “It is a tough situation for them. Many of them have been living on borrowed money since losing their job.”


Urdu comic book 'Little Master' to help Pakistani children fight COVID-19 misinformation

Updated 19 September 2020

Urdu comic book 'Little Master' to help Pakistani children fight COVID-19 misinformation

  • The book tells the story of a young boy from Karachi's Lyari, who is learning about the virus to help others
  • 'Little Master' is illustrated by Umair Najeeb Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s first superhero comic book series 'Paak-Legion'

RAWALPINDI: "Little Master," an Urdu-language comic book, is going to be released on Monday to guide Pakistani children how to stay safe amid the coronavirus pandemic and cope with COVID-19 misinformation.
Published by Mehrdar Art & Production (MAP), the book tells the story of Ahmed, a young boy from Karachi's Lyari area, who is trying to learn about the coronavirus to help keep others safe, regardless of their community background.
"Comics are a great way to tell a story positively and are really useful in countering misinformation,” Muhammad Faheem, documentary filmmaker and MAP founder, told Arab News on Saturday.

The cover of "Little Master," an Urdu-language comic book to help Pakistani children cope with COVID-19 misinformation. (Photo courtesy of Muhammad Faheem via AN)

The efforts have been funded by MAP itself and through government and private support. To illustrate "Little Master," Faheem asked for help Umair Najeeb Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s first superhero comic book series "Paak-Legion."
Thousands of copies of "Little Master" will be distributed at schools in underprivileged areas such as Lyari, where misinformation has led to blame games and community tensions that affected virus response. Some narratives even questioned the very existence of the virus and necessity to follow any precautions against it.

Umair Najeeb Khan is working on an illustration for the "Little Master" comic book in Islamabad on Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Umair Najeeb Khan via AN)

In May, Faheem rolled out "Hum Sab Saath, Corona ki Kilaaf" ("All of Us Together Against the Coronavirus"), a campaign through posters, social media and talks by community leaders to address the situation.
"It got to the point where relief efforts in these areas were being compromised because people were questioning who deserved help," Faheem said. "We needed to address not only the severity of what was going on but educate the citizens of these areas on what was real information to help combat the fake news and rising bigotry."
The comic book is a follow up to these efforts.
"When kids read our comics, we hope they will learn more about the pandemic and how it is a collective effort that we all have to join together, regardless of our backgrounds."