AMIN of Khanewal has to be one of the unluckiest persons alive. The world is in the grip of an ugly pandemic. His own country is struggling to escape with the minimum possible damage. Not a single moment passes without someone somewhere in the great national pile-up coming up with a complaint. Doctors are getting afflicted, dying along with their patients in some parts of the world. There is no cure. Hands are bound in supplication as the masses pray for a vaccine. Not enough testing kits are available. Not enough resources are at hand for a poor country which is repeatedly reminded by its own rulers of just how ineptly equipped it is to deal with the challenge.
The aim everywhere seems to be on saving the system more than saving people. The international line has found its way easily into the official discourse in Pakistan. The idea of the establishment is to save the economy. The intent of policymakers is to save the healthcare system by trying to ensure that hospitals are not overburdened.
Consequently, some commerce has to take place to keep the system breathing. The collateral damage has to be endured, and ignored, in the interest of a functioning economy, say the experts. Similarly, there needs to be no great rush to find Covid-19 patients. We can only test as many as we can handle at a time given our poor country status.
In other words, the economy and healthcare system are related to the people. They are about the people but sound cold when rolled out for public consumption as figures deliberately devoid of human faces. The process of turning humans into mere numbers is necessary, otherwise the whole fare would be too unpalatable.
Not everyone in government has shown the same readiness to trust the most relevant expert.
This is how the system works normally, efficiently. There are, however, rare occasions when some problems related to human nature occur in the midst of these faceless numbers which keep the machine going — as now, when the war against Covid-19 has repeatedly had doctors breaking the obedience code and shouting out for improvements.
The conventional view is that the saviours must not demand protection — particularly during an epidemic. In the tradition of gallant firefighters who threw caution to the wind and were consumed by flames atop a Rawalpindi plaza some years ago, the doctors are supposed to take the plunge come what may. But, here, the machine has shown signs of stress.
The doctors are protesting. And when they protest, they protest not just for themselves. They have chosen to demand a show of sanity on behalf of the people at large. They have been calling for strict social distancing, even if some of the other ideal international standards set by the fight against Covid-19 are difficult to have here.
At any given time, a policy is a compromise between various concerns, some of them in contrast to the other. But let there be no doubt that the most important guideline in the present situation has to come from medical experts. Other realities have to be balanced out against what doctors have ordered. It can be disastrous if anyone tries to mould the doctors’ words to suit their own version of a cure.
Economists must learn to take a back seat occasionally. They cannot hog attention, trying to impress us with jargon that they know is going to fly over our heads, except for the phrase ‘poor state of our economy’. Pakistan happens to have a wealth of talent in the healthcare sector, confirmed by cases of individual recognition as well as by the ‘large number’ of Pakistani doctors who have been asked over the years to strengthen health services overseas. They surely deserve a pivotal role at this moment. Going by reports in the media, doctors seem to have breathed new life into the government. The PPP government’s health in Sindh has improved ever since it started listening to the doctors’ advice. Sadly, not everyone in government has shown the same readiness to trust the most relevant expert.
The health authorities have been allowed to take it too easy thus far. So much so that, amid all the tension, the authorities here have found time to hold up a man for a routine mistake in a case that has since been publicised far and wide — the case of Amin of Khanewal.
Amin had the misfortune of running an apparently more affordable clinical lab facility for people in Khanewal. As with many cheap options, the lab apparently lacked a legal licence. But if this was something that was worthy of catching the attention of the sensitive souls whose privileged disposition disallows any kind of inexpensive relief to the ‘needy’, Amin would have been caught a long time ago. As it turned out, the misdeed that exposed him was of a much more technical nature.
Amin was accused of trying to cause an actual medical emergency in the country by ruling that a man who had submitted a urine sample at his lab was all set scientifically to give birth. Yes, a certain Mr Allah Ditta was declared pregnant by the expert findings by this unlicensed clinical testing lab, and within no time the news spread across the media.
It was flashed on social media and in mainstream channels and some papers as well. The most noticeable part was how everyone took care to mention that Mr Ditta was 60 years old. The age probably made it even more difficult for the bearer of the certificate to perform what was expected of him. Later on, it made it very tough for people who tried to explain it away simply as a matter of someone failing to write ‘Mrs’ before the name Allah Ditta.
As if this was the first time such a mistake had crept into a medical lab. Labs are famous for inventing such stories. An investigation into the many suspected Covid-19 results would have been resources better spent.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2020