DAWN - Editorial; February 17, 2003

Published February 17, 2003

As peace wave gains momentum

IN an overwhelming display of anti-war sentiment, millions of protesters came out on the streets this weekend to oppose the proposed US-led attack on Iraq. While rallies and marches took place in dozens of countries across the world, the largest number of protesters assembled in various European capitals. London saw a record half a million people on the streets protesting against the policies of US President George W. Bush and his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In contrast to the angry public mood in the West and beyond, there has been a relatively muted response across much of the Arab and Muslim world. This does not, however, mean that there is no concern or anxiety over the prospect of a war in the region. On the contrary, it seems as if the Muslim communities, many of them living under authoritarian regimes, have sullenly accepted the limitations on their activist role and resigned themselves to their fate. Whether or not the overall anti-war sentiment manifests itself in street protests, there is widespread anger across the globe over the cavalier and arrogant manner in which the US has brushed aside all arguments in favour of finding a peaceful settlement to the Iraq crisis. People are deeply worried that the US is foisting an unnecessary war that could further destabilize an already unstable region with unpredictable consequences.

The mood at the UN Security Council too seems to be tilting heavily away from war and towards finding a peaceful way out of the crisis. On Friday, the chief weapons inspector Hans Blix came up with a fairly ambiguous report to the Security Council. The report contains ammunition for both those priming for a swift attack on Iraq as well as those arguing that the inspectors need to be given more time to determine the actual situation in Iraq. Hans Blix admitted that Iraq was fully cooperating with the inspectors and not denying them access to any sites, including the presidential palaces. However, he claimed that even though no evidence had been found of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, there was still a possibility that they exist and Baghdad must do more to present evidence of their destruction. The US and Britain claim that the reports vindicate their position and accuse Saddam Hussein of deliberately concealing evidence.

Meanwhile, France, Russia and China, the three other permanent members of the Security Council besides the US and Britain, seem to have hardened their positions following the inspector’s report. They contend that the reports vindicate the view that the inspectors need more time to complete their task and that there is still a chance to disarm Iraq peacefully. In a reflection of the mood of the Security Council, the members as well as those in the visitors’ gallery burst into spontaneous applause after the French foreign minister finished his forceful speech arguing against the war option. This leaves the US and Britain in a quandary. The US may well go ahead with unilateral action against Iraq, as it has suggested on many occasions, and ignore an increasingly pro-peace Security Council altogether. The millions of protesters on the streets this weekend believe that the force of public opinion may still prevent a war. However, it is equally likely that there will be a war and one that does untold damage not only to Iraq but also to the authority and credibility of the United Nations.

Hazards of untested blood

FIGURES quoted by a UN report stating that up to 40 per cent of all blood transfusions taking place in Pakistan are not screened for HIV are extremely disturbing. This negligence implies that Pakistan could witness a higher incidence of AIDS in the near future. The report quoted the country’s top official in charge of blood transfusions as saying that there was no uniformity at all in the monitoring of blood banks, especially those in the private sector. Even in a city like Karachi, which has around 100 blood banks, only 20 per cent of blood bags are subjected to screening. The report also notes that the majority of professional blood donors have perhaps never been tested for HIV. Since AIDS has no cure, the most effective way of preventing it from spreading is to ensure that a transfusion recipient is given blood only after it has been tested for the HIV virus.

In a country like Pakistan, where the threat of AIDS has been routinely underplayed, cannot afford to have such lax regulation of its blood banks. The National Aids Control Programme continues to claim that less than 2,000 people have been infected by the virus but some officials estimate that the figure is much higher — between 70,000 and 80,000 cases — and could rise rapidly if the government does not act in time. Of late, the ministry of health has been funding a public service campaign on television on AIDS awareness. However, much more than this is needed to prevent HIV from spreading. In the case of unregulated blood banks, they could falsely claim to their clients that the blood they received is safe. Existing laws requiring HIV screening of all blood transfusions have to be implemented. The ministry should focus its monitoring efforts particularly on private blood banks since that is where much of the problem lies. One way of doing that would be to set up a regime that allows all donors, both at government and private blood banks, to be regularly tested so that the institutions can build up a list of potential virus-free donors.

Why this shortage?

THE non-availability of drugs in at least three hospitals of Gujrat district speaks of the mismanagement pervading the public health sector. The emergency wards of DHQ Hospital, Gujrat Maternity Hospital and Kharian THQ Hospital are without medicines for several months. Given the fact that hundreds come to these hospitals daily, the suffering of the sick and needy can well be imagined. If something as basic as medicine is not available in the hospitals, how can they be expected to provide proper medical service to the people?

The cruel irony is that patients have been suffering in spite of the availability of funds for purchasing medicines. The DHQ hospital alone has an annual budget of seven million rupees, a major part of which is said to be lying idle. The funds available may not be very large, but they could still have been used for providing much-needed relief to the people. Unless there is large-scale mismanagement and negligence, it is difficult to understand how financial resources can remain unutilized in cash-strapped government health institutions. Reports speak of administrative snags and lack of cooperation among the district health staff, affecting medicine purchases. The impact of this malaise inevitably has to be borne by the poor and deprived. The Gujrat district government and Punjab health administration must sort out the matter and take urgent steps to remedy the situation.

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