Down at the hospital

Published January 13, 2017
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

WE all have a fair idea what ending the story will ultimately have. Zohra Bibi’s time had come and it was just a coincidence that she passed away on the floor of Jinnah Hospital in Lahore, one particular haunt that must find ever newer ways of staying in the news.

The members of the city’s press corps cite a specific route the story took to reach the public. The young doctors who are at loggerheads with the Punjab government also play the watchdog. They act as the necessary check since they keep informing the general public about any unfortunate incident which highlights the inefficiency of the system these doctors have a gripe against.

So it can be said that the story of Zohra Bibi, a 60-something lady from Kasur, most likely originated from the young doctors’ camp. It spread faster than other misery stories coming out of hospitals because of the additional dramatic turns it took. It was not your usual instance of one heartless emergency or one set of doctors spurning a patient. The lady who belonged to the milk sellers’ community of the city of Kasur had been approaching various hospitals before the culmination of her zigzag journey at Jinnah Hospital’s feet in Lahore.


Many of those who fall ill — especially those struck by what are called ‘serious’ ailments — are forced to look towards Lahore for more reliable cures.


The first stop on the way was the district headquarters hospital in Kasur. The city has undergone its own little transformation over the last decade or so just as its twin, Lahore, went merrily ahead with its development, drawing cries of envy and jealousy.

Far from the dusty look that it once wore, the city today presents a very neat face. The construction of a wide thoroughfare that runs by the side of the old city, improvement of roads generally and the provision of the Kasur-Depalpur bypass are some of the salient features that speak of the city’s progress in the fast lane. Consequently, the presumption is that while there can be no rival to Lahore’s place in the heart of Punjab’s rulers, Kasur would have less to complain about in comparison with some other towns in the province which are found openly alleging that they had been discriminated against.

It can, however, be safely said that good healthcare and hospitals are still some distance away. Many of those who fall ill — especially those struck by what are called ‘serious’ ailments — are forced to look towards Lahore for more reliable cures.

The Lahore General Hospital is less than an hour’s drive from Kasur city. A vehicle carrying a patient in need of urgent medical help would travel the distance much faster — especially given that the connecting road is in good shape after it was widened and re-laid a few years ago. Over time, the usual housing colonies, varied businesses and educational institutions have cropped up along the way. They are all straining to turn the two places said to have been founded around the same time into one. Included among them is a privately run medical college complete with a hospital where Zohra Bibi was taken on the first leg of her journey following her final departure from her hometown.

The Pakistan Medical and Dental Council has since been asked to probe as to why didn’t, or couldn’t, this private hospital treat her and punish the guilty. That is only one probe among a trail Zohra Bibi has been responsible for. Her case has caused a flurry of activity, some meaningful, some routine. However, it is unlikely that anyone will be penalised at the hospitals she was turned away from — the Lahore General Hospital and the Punjab Institute of Cardiology before she was offered a cold reception at Jinnah. Those in the know say that the outcome of all these investigations is as clear as are some unfortunate realities associated with the government’s attitude towards the health sector.

The health infrastructure on the periphery suffers from the absence of genuine and sustained official attention. The districts are lacking in facilities and there is a deficiency of coordination that could have led to a more reasonable sharing of the burden. There was a referral system which created an effective chain between government health facilities at various levels. This has been missing for many years, as have some of the basic provisions in the districts in this most resourceful province of the country. These are hospitals ideally suited to the surprise, high-adrenaline visits of the chief executive of the province

On the other hand, many projects that started in the big cities — not least among them Lahore — are stalled, as if they are no more required, as if they have lost their utility for the people. They have certainly lost their appeal for the rulers, not surprisingly some initiated more than a decade ago by the Pervaiz Elahi government.

There are many examples to drive home the point, so many facts that have been listed so many times, without bringing in any visible or big changes in the way the government appears to want to deal with health — through half-hearted attempts towards fulfilling an old responsibility that for the moment one cannot escape, despite all the mantras advocating the merits of outsourcing and greater private-sector efficiency.

There have been no new hospitals since Jinnah started working way back in the 1990s. In the middle of confused priorities and based on a muddled vision, many initiatives, such as the ambitious but very necessary Surgical Tower at the most prestigious Mayo Hospital, are waiting to be made operational or awaiting a cash infusion. On top of that, whereas the funds are allocated on the strength of the beds a hospital has, no allowance is made for patients over and above the ‘official capacity’.

According to stories that commonly do the rounds it is not unusual for Jinnah to have two even three patients sharing a bed. Zohra Bibi could have been one of them when she faded away. She had the more privileged option of having the space to herself when she made her exit.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2017

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