Pakistani Migrant Workers Fear Job Losses as Saudi Arabia and UAE Don’t Recognise Chinese Vaccines
Pakistani workers protest against being given Chinese vaccines.

ISLAMABAD – Thousands of Pakistani migrant labourers fear that they might lose their jobs after the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) banned entry for Pakistanis vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines produced in China.

Meanwhile, Europe’s digital ‘Green Pass’ is not available to those vaccinated by the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India – all the COVAX recipients – as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has only approved the Vaxzevria version of the AstraZeneca vaccine that was produced and manufactured in the United Kingdom or other sites around Europe, Health Policy Watch reported last Friday.

In the past two weeks, dozens of Pakistanis have held protests outside a mass vaccination center in Islamabad,  demanding that health authorities vaccinate them only with vaccines approved by the two countries and not any of those produced by the Chinese.

The UAE has authorised Sinopharm but Saudi Arabia has not authorised any of the Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, while most Pakistanis are vaccinated with Sinovac.

The protestors say that if they are not vaccinated with the UAE and Saudi-approved vaccines, they will not be able to return to their jobs in those countries. Those who have not been vaccinated with vaccines approved by the Gulf states either face exclusion or have to undergo a 10-day quarantine at their own expense, which is unaffordable to ordinary workers.

Last month, Saudi Arabia updated its travel restrictions to enable travellers vaccinated with the Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to enter the country – excluding the five vaccines produced by China, including Sinovac and Sinopharm which have been widely used in Pakistan.

Last week, the UAE lifted its ban on passengers from India, requiring them to be fully vaccinated and to undergo a PCR test on entry and remain in quarantine until the test results were known. Passengers from South Africa and Nigeria will also no longer be banned from the UAE.

Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson, Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, told a press briefing on 17 June that the UAE government had suspended the entry of passengers from Pakistan and some other South Asian countries in mid-May based on COVID-19 numbers.

“We hope that the UAE will review its COVID-related advisory for all Pakistanis soon. Currently, Pakistanis having diplomatic and official visas and UAE Golden visas can travel to the UAE,” he said.

“We have proposed inclusion of some of the Chinese vaccines used in Pakistan in the list of vaccines approved by the Saudi authorities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is actively pursuing this matter,” Chaudhri added. 

AstraZeneca to be Offered to Workers

A few days earlier, the government had buckled under the pressure from the protesting workers and amended the criteria for those eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine from 40 years and over to anyone above 18. 

However, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination (NHSR&C), Sajid Hussain Shah, told Health Policy Watch that those under 40 would only be given the AstraZeneca jab after submitting a consent form. This decision had been taken after analysing the scientific data by the authorities and considering the situation of expats working in other countries. 

“Labour class and students would have to show work and study visas to get AstraZeneca jab. The vaccine will also be administered to work permit holders in Saudi Arabia,” Shah said.

When asked about sudden change in the health guidelines of the AstraZeneca vaccine and its side effects,  NHSR&C Director General Dr Rana Muhammad Safdar said that “there is no harm at all” in administering AstraZeneca to people below age 40.

“Consent was required only as the expert committee recommended it under 40 due to limited availability of data,” said Safdar.

However, the country faces a shortage of AstraZeneca vaccines, which are no longer being exported by its main manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India.

Pervaiz Khan, one of the protesters from the north-western city of Mardan, works in a construction company in Saudi Arabia. Khan has prepared a ‘consent form’ declaring that he “has viewed the information related to adverse effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine and requests to get this vaccine”.

“Our visas are getting expired, and we will lose our jobs if we don’t get Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) approved vaccine jabs,” said Khan.

Pakistan Reneged on its Pfizer Announcement

Pakistan had announced that it would administer the Pfizer vaccine to migrant workers returning to Gulf countries, but later reneged on this due to a lack of sufficient Pfizer vaccines, Khan said.  

Workers staged their first protest on 14 June when authorities changed the vaccines to be administered back to AstraZeneca due to a lack of Pfizer supplies, but now, even AstraZeneca is said to be in short supply.

“This is a disappointing situation for low-income laborers struggling for their bread and butter in gulf countries, where Saudi Arabia does not approve Chinese vaccines, and the Pakistan government is not smoothly administering Pfizer and AstraZeneca to them,” a frustrated Khan said.

Saudi Arabia has refused to recognize any Chinese-made vaccines for visitors and migrant workers; the UAE has only allowed SinoPharm vaccine for travelers entering the Gulf states

Pakistan has mostly administered Chinese vaccines including Sinopharm, SinoVac and CanSino to its citizens.

Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE have imposed strict travel restrictions for Pakistani nationals, those visiting the United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU) and the United States (US) have not faced such hurdles. The US, UK and EU made it compulsory for passengers from Pakistan to have a negative PCR COVID-19 test, but have not raised concerns about which vaccines travellers have received. 

Lower efficacy of Sinopharm and Sinovac

China has sold and donated millions of Sinopharm and Sinovac doses to low-income countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

However, there are concerns that the two vaccines are less efficacious than Pfizer, AstraZeneca Moderna and Sputnik-V vaccines following COVID-19 outbreaks in countries with high vaccination rates with these vaccines.

However, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Chief Scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, told a recent press briefing that more data was needed “from well-designed studies on the efficacy of the different vaccines that are in use in different countries against the different variants.” 

Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region have bought up around 80% of the 759 million doses of Chinese vaccines sold to date. About 511 million of these are from Sinovac, and the rest from  Sinopharm. 

The WHO recently granted both vaccines Emergency Use Listing. Sinovac’s vaccine efficacy stands at 51% against symptomatic disease and 100% against severe disease, while Sinopharm showed an efficacy rate of 79% protection against mild and hospitalized disease.

Health Policy Watch recently reported a surge in COVID-19 cases in a number of African and Latin American countries that had vaccinated fairly extensively with the Chinese vaccines. This has added to concerns about the lack of follow-up surveillance of the vaccine’s  real-life impacts. 

Pakistan Reliance on Chinese Vaccines

According to the NHSR&C, the country has procured about 14 million doses of five different COVID-19 vaccines. Of these, 12 million were from China, with one million doses each of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines procured through COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing facility, 

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said that 76% of the vaccines had been bought and the remainder were donations. A total of 10 million doses of vaccine have been administered so far this month, according to the health ministry.

Director General Safdar told Health Policy Watch that another Chinese vaccine, CanSino, was being produced in the country under the name of PakVac, with 3 million doses being produced per month.

Meanwhile Pfizer Pakistan and BioNTech SE announced an agreement last week with the Pakistan government to supply 13 million doses of their COVID-19 Vaccine (BNT162b2). Deliveries are expected during the course of 2021.

Pakistan Depends on Remittances From Labour Force in Gulf

Pakistan is considered a strategic partner to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It provides a huge labor force to the Gulf countries, and they provide financial assistance to Pakistan’s unstable economy.

Around 2.6 million Pakistanis are working in Saudi Arabia, while 1.5 million are in the UAE, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). 

An August 2020 report by the State Bank of Pakistan states that in  the 2019/2020 financial year, Pakistan workers’ remittances received from Saudi Arabia was US $ 821.6 million and UAE US $ 538.2 million). 


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