With the Pakistan government bringing back import duties on various medical items used for Covid-19 treatment and protection, the country is facing a drug shortage, leaving citizens on tenterhooks amid a possible sixth wave of coronavirus infections, according to a media report on Saturday.
Pakistan, over the past few weeks, has seen rising coronavirus cases, a grim reminder for the country that its battle with the pandemic is yet far from over.
The government, met with a severe economic crisis and depleting foreign reserves, has brought back import duty, which was earlier declared tax-free by the previous Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, on equipment such as nebulisers, face masks and gloves, The Express Tribune newspaper reported.
The shortage of items has been confirmed by Wholesale Chemists Association President Muhammad Atif, who particularly mentioned the drug Panadol, saying that it was likely to disappear from the local markets as the sixth wave matured.
A packet of Panadol consisting of 100 tablets is being sold in Karachi's black markets for Rs 425 at the moment. Similarly, Panadol CF, an anti-allergy medicine, is also becoming hard to find," Muhammad Atif said.
"Other than that, common cough syrups, drugs used in tuberculosis treatment, as well as vitamin C supplements that are prescribed to patients recovering from Covid-19, are also disappearing from the market owing to the heavy taxes imposed on them, he said.
Peshawar Drug Association President Arshad Momand has also highlighted the drug shortage in his region.
The difference in supply and demand of coronavirus-related medicines has triggered a stock-piling situation, where many pharmacies in Peshawar have allegedly started stocking up on drugs and raising market prices, which is adding to the existing crisis, he said.
Currently, there is no check and balance in this regard and profiteers are trying to make the most of this brimming crisis. There is widespread shortage of Panadol and face-masks in Peshawar's open market, much of which is the doing of local hoarders right under the nose of the region's drug inspectors," he told the newspaper.
Reports of a similar situation have also been coming from Lahore, where gaps in supply of raw materials have affected the production of local pharmaceutical companies.
According to a survey of local drug stores, the city is facing a burgeoning drug availability crisis, while pharmacies have also started raising drug prices citing major gaps in supply and demand.
The survey found that like Karachi and Peshawar, Lahore is also currently short on Panadol, a popular antipyretic drug, in addition to medicines used to regulate blood pressure, treat diabetes, effects of hepatitis and soothe heartburn.
"There are some 40 drugs that are short in not just Lahore, but various cities across Punjab due to the surge in federal taxes," commented a Lahore pharmacy owner on the condition of anonymity.
The woes have intensified due to depreciation of the rupee against the dollar and local inflation which has discouraged pharmaceutical companies from importing raw materials that are also subject to higher import levies now.
The cumulative burden of this has fallen on the people of Punjab, who are struggling to find life-saving drugs amid a sixth spell of the coronavirus, the pharmacy owner said.
During the first wave of COVID-19, the ousted Imran Khan government had waived off duty on import of 61 items needed for coronavirus prevention and treatment, including disposable items such as masks, gloves and nebulising machines.
The former government had also issued a Statutory Regulatory Order (SRO) stating that all the equipment used for COVID-19 treatment would be kept duty free till the year 2021.
Subsequently, in January 2022, the SRO was withdrawn and duty was re-imposed on the 61 items because of which the import of such items was also affected and products gradually stopped coming in from neighbouring China, which had been one of the biggest suppliers of items related to coronavirus treatment and care.
During the first wave of the pandemic in 2021, Pakistan had to order over 50 million masks to meet the local PPE demand.
However, at present, with imports affected and a viral surge on the horizon, the country is once again on the brink of a face mask crisis, which could potentially catalyse the spread of the virus.
Healthcare Association of Pakistan's Executive Committee Member Muhammad Hanif Soomro, lamenting the withdrawal of SRO of January 2022, said the current government had imposed a jaw-dropping 80 per cent duty on masks, 60 per cent on gloves and 30 per cent on nebulising machines.
He opined that the duty on masks and other items related to Covid-19 should be abolished immediately, while the SRO should be re-issued to make these essential items duty free.
Covid-19 is on the rise again, and these 61 items will be more than a necessity soon, so the government should act before it's too late and there is widespread panic, he told The Express Tribune.
The latest development comes as about a hundred essential items ranging from flour to fuel and from housing to healthcare have collectively become 21.3 per cent expensive for Pakistani citizens in the last one year, according to the Consumer Price Index data compiled and released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.
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