We need a solid Covid-19 management plan
Bangladesh's second special mass vaccination drive at the city corporation levels was held from September 7 to 9. It was, unsurprisingly, riddled with almost all the hiccups faced during the first special drive that took place about a month ago, between August 7 and August 12: gross flouting of Covid-19 safety protocols at the vaccination centres, lack of clarity, and chaos and confusion among the public. These attributes have somewhat become the trademark of our overall Covid-19 management mechanism.
There have been reports of long queues at the vaccination centres, where hundreds gathered from early in the morning, hoping to secure the second shots on time, and before the stocks ran out. Pictures of different vaccination centres circulated by various media outlets showed throngs of people standing in multiple congested lines—some without wearing masks, their faces betraying their worries, frustrations and exhaustion. And amid all the pressure, crowd management was a Herculean task for the authorities.
Since most people came to know about this second drive—for those who had received their first jabs in August—at the last minute, they had to juggle work and daily chores to make time to get the vaccine shots. For instance, a local daily quoted a private company employee who had been waiting in the queue since early morning hoping to get the shot on time, as he had to attend office. He said he could not take leave from work because he had not been aware of the drive until the day before. He had taken the first dose on August 7.
The same report quoted Brig Gen Md Sharif Ahmed, chief health officer of Dhaka South City Corporation, as saying: "I got to know at 5 pm yesterday that the vaccination programme would be held today [September 7]. Then I arranged with others to implement it. I didn't expect so many people to respond in such a short time. All centres are full."
So why this last-minute initiative? Apparently, as reported by news outlets, the decision regarding the second special mass vaccination drive came on the night of September 6. Why this decision came so late, only the authorities can tell.
Although the second drive was in discussion for some time, the call was made a little too late for an effective mass communication. In addition, there were also those who went to the vaccine centres during the second drive to receive their first dose, as they were not fully aware of its objective, and they were turned away.
This time around, there was another reason for overcrowding at the vaccination centres at the city corporation levels: the duration of the drive. While the first drive was conducted over six days, the second drive was conducted over three days only.
Despite the drawbacks, the positive side of the second special mass drive cannot be left out of this discussion. As a result of this special campaign, more than 4.3 million people are now fully vaccinated in the country. The rest of more than five million people who had received the first dose in August can still visit the designated centres to receive their second jabs, as informed by the officials of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).
However, it goes without saying: this campaign could have yielded better results—more in compliance with Covid-19 safety protocols—had it been communicated with the people and the campaign conductors on time. Unfortunately, this is not the first instance where the government's indecision or lack of clarity regarding their plans added to the common people's sufferings.
We can consider another case to see how the lack of planning, coordination and communication are creating confusion among the people with regard to accessing Covid-19 vaccines: vaccine registration for people over 18 years. Without a National ID card or a passport, the young adults are facing difficulty in registering for the much-needed vaccine doses, especially in view of the government's decision to reopen educational institutions. Various universities on their websites have advised students to register and get fully vaccinated before the resumption of in-person classes. Those who do not have NID have been advised to apply for NID. Only after getting the NID can they register for the vaccine.
Getting a new NID takes some time. And then once the students register for the vaccines, they will have to wait another few weeks to get the schedule for the first dose, then another month at least before they can get the second dose and be fully vaccinated.
The announcement lowering the age limit for inoculation to 18 years—for students—came on August 20. While schools and colleges reopened yesterday, universities are set to resume in-person classes from October 15. Does this give enough time to the university students to register for the vaccine and get fully vaccinated with the two required doses by that deadline for reopening? What about those who will have to first register for NID, then the vaccine, and then wait in the long queue for a schedule?
These are the questions that the government should have considered before announcing the decision to reopen higher educational institutions. The students should have been given ample time to register for NID, sign up for the vaccination, and get fully vaccinated. There are cases where it has taken people weeks, if not months, before they could get a schedule for vaccination after registration.
To resolve this issue immediately, the government can consider allowing young university students to register for the vaccine using their student ID. When they apply for their NID, the student ID numbers can be tagged along with the NID to track vaccine recipients. This can be an easy solution, but how the government decides to handle this remains to be seen.
The government needs to address its own deficiencies in formulating and implementing a watertight Covid-19 management plan. The government's current plan—if there is one at all—is full of inconsistencies, and its implementation has been mired in irregularities of all sorts. It has formed a National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on Covid-19 and a Covid-19 Vaccine Management Taskforce Committee to tackle the pandemic. Along with these, the Ministry of Health and especially the DGHS are working to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic. However, despite all these, the Covid management plan of the government is clearly malfunctioning, and often. As a result, we are seeing these special vaccination drives, which are rather turning into hotbeds of virus transmission, and young adults struggling to register for vaccines to become eligible to attend in-person classes.
Even if we ignore the past fiascos of the government's handling of Covid-19—including the so-called "strict" but ill-planned and ill-executed lockdowns, the trouble these lockdowns caused the urban working class, the pitfall-ridden vaccination drives, where the government struggled to source sufficient vaccines (with the uncertainty over Sputnik V procurement still unresolved)—one cannot overlook the repeated instances of gross mismanagement that are exacerbating the plight of the common people.
There have also been instances where individuals had been given multiple jabs of the vaccine within minutes and had to be kept under observations. And then there have been irregularities in executing the government-announced social safety programmes, the benefits of which often did not reach their intended recipients: the poor.
Because of the mismanagement and mishandling of the government's Covid-19 management plans, the people are suffering at both the macro and micro levels. This cannot go on. The authorities need to look into their own deficiencies and inefficiencies and fix the glitches in the system. It is time for the authorities to roll up their sleeves and get down to work, and work as a team in order to alleviate the suffering of the common people. After all, it is the government's responsibility to ensure that both lives and livelihoods are sustained during the pandemic.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb