Dawn Editorial 7 February 2021

Vaccine awareness

WITH Pakistan having begun its first stage of Covid-19 vaccinations, a mass awareness programme about the need, efficacy and safety of the vaccines is critical. Even in these early days, there has been some confusion about whether the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine is safe for those over 60. The Ministry of Health, however, has clarified that the vaccine is not being administered to doctors above 60 as the data for Sinopharm is not available for trial candidates in that age bracket. While these are important clarifications, the government must put careful thought and resources into a public-awareness drive. Across the world, vaccine scepticism has been a huge challenge even prior to Covid-19. A December 2020 survey conducted jointly by data-gathering company Ipsos and the World Economic Forum revealed that the country most suspicious of the Covid-19 vaccine is France, which has been a vaccine-sceptical nation even before the coronavirus struck. The survey, which was taken by 13,500 people in 15 countries, revealed that only 40pc of adults in France intended to get the vaccine. The greatest number of people intending to be inoculated against the virus was seen in China, where 80pc agreed that they would get the vaccine if it was available. One of the main reasons behind vaccine refusal, the survey revealed, was the fear of side effects, followed by doubts about its efficacy. Some respondents said they would refuse as they felt they were not at risk of contracting the virus, while a lower percentage said they are against vaccines in general.

Pakistan is no exception when it comes to vaccine scepticism. The polio vaccination programme for years has been marred by refusals and even violence due to misguided beliefs about polio drops. As a result, Pakistan remains one of the last two countries left where the virus has not been eradicated. The government ought to consider these realities and address not just the sceptics but also those who do not have access to information about the global vaccination drive. An effective awareness programme can be implemented by engaging health experts, public figures and community leaders. Here, the ministries of information and public health can play a pivotal role in addressing concerns about efficacy, side effects, the age factor and other vulnerabilities. The idea should be to share information with the public in a convincing, transparent and accessible manner, so that citizens can make an informed decision about the Covid-19 vaccine.



Senate poll ordinance

PRESIDENT Arif Alvi has issued an ordinance for holding the upcoming Senate elections through an open vote by amending the Election Act 2017. The ordinance says: “Provided that in case the Supreme Court … gives an opinion … that elections for members of Senate do not fall within the purview of Article 226 of the Constitution, the poll for elections for members of the Senate … shall be conducted … through open and identifiable ballot.”
The government took the decision to issue an ordinance after the opposition blocked a bill tabled in the National Assembly to amend the Constitution and change the existing mode of secret balloting in the election for the upper house. Legal experts will have to determine if the change in this act would suffice for open balloting to take place or whether a constitutional amendment will actually be needed for the purpose.
Linked to all those is a larger question about why the government has been insistent on bulldozing through such a change in the mode of voting for elections that are just weeks away. There is no arguing that the menace of vote-purchasing in the Senate elections must be done away with. The government has framed its initiative in a way that suggests that the only reason the opposition is not agreeing to such a change in the voting method at this time is because it wants corruption to flourish in these elections. Such a line of reasoning may make sense to the PTI base but it excludes the larger argument.
Any constitutional amendment aimed at fixing existing problems in the system, or improving processes that in turn strengthen democracy, must be discussed and debated at length with the aim of reaching a consensus. The government has done no such thing. Instead, it has painted the issue in partisan colours with the obvious aim of discrediting the opposition. Either this, or the government is concerned that it may lose some of its own members’ votes in the secret ballot for the Senate elections. Both reasons fall far short of the moral high ground that the government is attempting to gain on this issue.
A better way would be to make this change part of a larger set of electoral reforms that are in any case overdue and required. It is high time that the government and the opposition agreed to start processing such reform work in the house committees with the intention of drafting a comprehensive bill that fixes all weaknesses in the electoral system. All stakeholders should be taken on board and the bill passed through a consensus so that everyone takes ownership of it and ensures that it is implemented in letter and spirit for the next general elections. By making it a political dispute, the government is needlessly complicating an issue that requires utmost seriousness of purpose. It should reconsider its position.



Cotton crisis

QUIETLY and under the radar of the government, a crisis in the cotton sector is brewing that increasingly calls for urgent attention from policymakers. The cotton crop this year has plummeted, due to various factors. The expectation was production of slightly more than 10m bales this year, down from the norm of 12m bales. But now that the harvest is done, less than 6m bales have come through. This means Pakistan’s imports of cotton are rising sharply, coming in above $1bn in the first half of this ongoing fiscal year, up from $543m in the same period last year, and among stakeholders the expectation seems to be that this figure could climb to $3bn by June.
This does not seem to be a one-off event. The country’s cotton harvest has suffered setbacks in the previous two years at least, but the scale of the declines is accelerating. Importing cotton is one stopgap solution, but if the diminishing harvests become the new normal, it will have a very damaging effect on the external account. Pakistan’s textile exports already use large amounts of imported raw materials, as evidenced by the rising import bill along with rising exports. If cotton is also added to the list of imported raw materials, it will mean even greater loss of competitiveness by the textile sector, which is already struggling to compete with its counterparts in Bangladesh and Vietnam. There are two problems that need to be tackled simultaneously. First the immediate situation that has arisen from the collapse of the cotton harvest, that is leading to rising prices, which could prompt exporters to demand even greater concessions from the government to maintain the momentum behind exports. The second is the longer-term stagnation and erosion of the country’s cotton output. The latter will require a deeper look, more coordination with provincial authorities and industry players. The government would be well advised to take the emerging situation more seriously than it is at present.

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