Along with several other countries, vaccination against Covid has been rolled out in Bangladesh. Before the arrival of the vaccine, there were anxieties among people for several reasons. On the one hand, there are people who are eager to take the vaccine to remain safe from the pandemic. So, their worries include when will their turn come and whether they will get the opportunity at all.
Another group of people are sceptical on the efficacy and side effects of the vaccine. They doubt the authenticity of the vaccine and are unsure about the observation of vaccine protocols by hospitals. The mistrust and confusion among people were reflected in the low registration for vaccination in the first few days. These concerns also led the government to reduce the number of doses to be administered among people. Earlier, the government planned to inoculate 6 million people in the first month. It has now been reduced to 3.5 million doses. Also, vaccination is now open for people above 40 years old which was initially 55 years.
However, within a few days, the number of vaccine registration increased significantly. Initially, the government had allowed spot registration to help those who cannot register online. The hospitals had to stop this due to the increased pressure. Also, some of the hospitals in Dhaka are now full and not accepting registration.
The vaccination programme conducted so far has enhanced the image of the government dramatically. When the pandemic broke out in early March 2020, the health ministry was heavily criticised for its insensitivity and inefficiency in managing the pandemic. The inherent weaknesses of the overall healthcare system became more evident. This was manifested not only through the lack of preparedness in managing so many patients with limited facilities, but also through corruption and lack of governance in the health sector even at a time when people were dying due to the pandemic. The pandemic also reminded of the need to invest more on the health sector since there were so few hospital beds, emergency rooms, equipment, doctors and nurses to take care of so many Covid patients. So, investment is needed not only on building hospitals and purchasing equipment but also on human capital to improve the quality of healthcare.
As opposed to the experience of Covid patient management, particularly in the beginning, the experience of the ongoing vaccine operation so far has been impressive for which the government deserves compliments.
Before I myself took the vaccine, friends and relatives were all full of praise on the smoothness in the vaccine process at government hospitals where they had registered. I felt encouraged to register myself quickly. To begin with, the online registration process is so simple and user friendly that one can complete the process within a few minutes. After the registration one has to wait for the date of vaccination which is notified through mobile message. Lucky enough, I got the notice on the day within half an hour to go for vaccination the following day at my chosen centre—the National Institute of Neurosciences and Hospital. On my arrival at the vaccination centre, I got my shot within half an hour. Health workers and volunteers are extremely efficient and caring. Doctors, including the senior ones were around and interacting with people who were waiting to take the shot. There were important people and high officials who turned up for vaccination. There were common people too. But health workers and volunteers were equally warm and sincere to all. I consider doctors, nurses and health workers the greatest service providers to humanity. My respect for them is always the highest among all professions. During the pandemic my regard for them has gone up further. Risking their own lives, they have been providing health care to Covid patients and in most cases with limited facilities and support. With them, the contribution of all other frontline workers has also been critical throughout the pandemic.
After the vaccine, I returned home with a sense of pride and hope. I feel proud that Bangladesh could prepare itself so quickly and so well to administer the vaccine. This has proved once again that if the government is committed to implement a good programme, it can do so. I am hopeful because, there are talented and dedicated people in the country who are ready to work. What is needed is the policy guidance, leadership and encouragement.
As far as the pandemic management is concerned, the central issue is to control its spread and reduce its fatality. So, the effectiveness of the response to the pandemic will depend on the coverage of people under vaccination. The national Covid vaccine distribution and preparation plan of Bangladesh aims to vaccinate 80 percent of the total population in Bangladesh. This will take quite some time though. As the vaccination programme has now been initiated outside the capital, one would expect that similar efficiency will be maintained at the district and upazilla levels also.
Once the vaccination is completed, there will be some respite among people. This will increase mobility and help the economy to recover faster. However, as many experts have mentioned, vaccination may not end the crisis immediately. It is still uncertain how much protection vaccines can provide to human beings from the pandemic. One does not know yet how long Covid-related health protocols have to be followed. Therefore, while the vaccination programme is implemented, awareness building among people will have to continue.
Finally, the pandemic has once again reiterated the role of a government. Across the world, governments have come forward to reduce the impact of the pandemic and ensure access to essential services. From stimulus packages to vaccination—everything has to be provided by the government during a massive crisis like the Covid pandemic. Hence, it is important how this role is played by the political leadership. Bangladesh's Covid vaccination programme can become a model for other countries if the government continues to be organised and thoughtful in delivering the vaccine till the end.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her organisation.