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Doctors in danger

May 23, 2012

IN the darkness between May 12 and 13, Dr Aftab Qureshi, a neurosurgeon left his clinic and got on the road for the drive to Hyderabad from Karachi. He would not be on the road long.

In details that remain unclear, he was kidnapped by armed assailants. His abandoned car, the last wordless clue to what befell the kidnapped surgeon, was found abandoned near Patel Hospital, a few hours after the abduction.

Dr Qureshi is only one victim of an alarming series of kidnappings and killings that have targeted medical professionals in Karachi and other parts of Sindh in recent days. On the same day that Dr Qureshi was kidnapped, another physician, Dr Faisal Iftikhar, the owner of Iftikhar Memorial Hospital, was also kidnapped by unknown culprits while he was on his way home.

Dr Iftikhar’s abduction took place in Gulshan-i-Hadeed, which is located about 30 minutes from Jinnah International Airport in Karachi and houses workers from the nearby steel industries. According to the Pakistan Medical Association, he was the sixth doctor to be kidnapped from the area.

Earlier in the month, on May 4, 2012 another physician, Dr Raj Kumar was also abducted by assailants. He was eventually released by his abductors — apparently relatives of a reprimanded security guard at his dispensary in Karachi.

In a protest organised by the Pakistan Medical Association recently, doctors tormented by threat of murder and kidnapping lamented their plight. According to a released statement by the organisation, nearly 80 per cent of practising physicians in Sindh complain of being forced to pay extortion to various criminal gangs and groups in order to practise medicine.

According to the statement, those that have been spared intimidation from extortion and kidnapping have been harmed in other ways. According to the Sindh Chapter of the Pakistan Medical Association, the houses of several doctors including Dr Zahid Sheikh, Dr Irshad Shah and Dr Fasih Hashmi have also been looted in the past several weeks.

And those are the lucky doctors. Not mentioned in this list of the looted are those physicians that have perished, as Karachi falls ever deeper into the miasma of many murders. In January of this year, Dr Jaffer Mohsin was gunned down on the steps of his home in Karachi’s Gulberg area. According to witnesses, Dr Mohsin had been threatened by extortionists in the area for several months before his murder.

In December 2011, Dr Saleem Kharal, another one of Karachi’s physicians was killed while trying to resist armed robbers who tried to snatch his car at gunpoint. He was shot in the chest and died at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, where he also served as department head of pathology.

As it happens when anyone dies in a city with too much death, there are many explanations, some theories and to crowd them all out conspiracies. Depending on particular hatreds, ethnic or sectarian, political or religious, espoused by an individual, rationalisations can be tacked on to one, then another and yet another death dividing them up for digestion by a life-starved population.

Much of the same has happened in the case of doctors; one murder tacked up to sectarian hatred, another to outspoken political activism, a third to the foolhardiness of resisting anyone holding a gun.

In a city where doctors and kidnappers and extortionists can be found in greater abundance than health and money it becomes easy with practice to allot their grim intersections a resigned shrug and a nod — after all, many people are dying in Karachi and it is inevitable that some will be doctors.

But other than death, or threats of death, doctors in Pakistan have something else in common. All doctors, from those trying to watch out for that odd-looking car in their rearview mirrors to those worrying about the next late-night departure from their clinic, are scions of this country’s ever smaller, ever more strained middle class.

The medical profession in Pakistan, has for decades been the route not only to serve the sick in a country with many sicknesses, but a means to earn a respectable living gleaned not from hereditary wealth, or family-owned businesses or politically purchased favours but from the hard work of lone warriors with brains and books.

In Karachi’s medical schools, those with little money, many dreams and inexhaustible resilience have a chance at rising with hard work; a rare one in a country where status is set in stone.

The assault on doctors, whether of minority religions or sects, this political group or that, unfortunate enough to resist the pressure of one gang on another, is then an assault on the country’s middle class. It is a curse on that in-between middle which can afford cars but not guards, homes but not protection and has neither the nonchalant insulation of the rich nor the unenviable empty-handed safety of the poor. The middle has something, not much of it, or very little of it, but easily, effortlessly grabbed by those wanting it.

A doctor, hurrying to see patients, or rushing to surgery is thinking about saving other people’s lives and not his own; perhaps it is this practice of empathy in a city as dangerous as Karachi that is a liability, a costly vulnerability of those who still believe in fighting death.

An assault on doctors is an assault on those who still, perhaps just by virtue of a professional choice, care about life. If the kidnappings, threats of violence, murders and intimidation of doctors are symptoms to the morbid puzzle of what ails a country, they point to a scourge where having even a little caring, even for a fee, is a dangerous.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.