WITH TV images of patients’ suffering being beamed live into every home, the striking young doctors in Punjab need to be aware that, regardless of the legitimacy of their demands, public patience may be wearing thin. Also that most of those being denied treatment are so poor that they rely solely on the strike-hit government hospitals for treatment. While the doctors say they aren’t protesting for more money, the Punjab government maintains that the ‘service structure’ they seek adds Rs23bn to the provincial health budget, an amount it can’t divert from frontline healthcare provision to their bank accounts. The government also says it has already given the young doctors raises worth Rs4.5bn. Unfortunately, all the signs are that the battle lines are hardening — especially after the police action last night on the Services Hospital hostel in Lahore that saw the arrest of dozens of doctors. Such a situation, both on the part of the doctors and the administration, whose strong-arm tactics cannot be condoned, does not augur well for patients, especially those who can’t afford private treatment.
Meanwhile, the element of militancy that has crept into the strike action has caused some senior professors and doctors to privately say they feel threatened if they staff outpatient departments, even though they are not bound by the strike call. It is sad that such action is now being associated with a noble profession that has public service at its core. We don’t need to remind the doctors of their Hippocratic Oath. Although the representatives of the Young Doctors Association, Punjab, have repeatedly said they are providing cover for essential medical services, they need only look in their own hospital yards to see the mass of suffering humanity. Now army doctors have been called in. Given the deadlock, what is needed is an independent arbitration and reconciliation service modelled after the UK’s ACAS which can be asked to step in if employees and employers can’t sort out disputes. For the moment, we can only call for restraint — especially after last night’s events — and dialogue so that the fundamental right to healthcare can be restored to the people.