IN the wake of her death on Thursday, Dr Ruth Pfau has been widely mourned and lavishly laurelled. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has announced a state funeral for her, saying that, “The entire nation is indebted to [her]….” This is just as it ought to be, though there is irony in the fact that the pomp and splendour that accompany state funerals will be quite a contrast to the life of remarkable humility that Dr Pfau led. A German citizen who visited Karachi in 1960 on her way to India, she was so affected by the wretchedness of the condition of leprosy sufferers — the most marginalised section of society especially at a time when it was believed that leprosy was highly contagious — that she was unable to turn away from them. She set up the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre for patients’ care, where in the early 1980s nearly 20,000 leprosy patients were under treatment in the country. In 1996, the World Health Organisation declared that the disease had been controlled in Pakistan, and last year saw merely 531 patients under treatment.
In dwelling on Dr Pfau’s trajectory, a parallel that comes to mind is Abdul Sattar Edhi, who passed away last year and was the first citizen in a quarter of a century to be given a state funeral. But there are several other such disciples to humanitarianism that should have been similarly honoured. Dutch nun Gertrude Lemmens, for example, started her mission in pre-Partition India and continued in Pakistan till her death in 2000. Her legacy is the Darul Sukun, which started out as a home for the mentally unstable but soon became a lifesaving shelter for all in need, from orphans to the aged. Even now, in different spheres, there are many who have dedicated themselves to helping those for whom no comfort is forthcoming. Such figures ought to be a source of inspiration in a country where even a cursory look around shows that there are few beacons in the darkness.
Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2017