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Mission old, doctors young

July 03, 2012


ONCE upon a time all you needed to do was to walk over to the Mayo, visit your patient and return in the knowledge that he was in the care of the best.

Money was not so important. A word put in by someone went a long way and a doctor known to someone known to you would be good enough.

But those were the days when traders were looked down upon. Some professions, such as that of teachers, journalists and doctors, were more respected than others. The refrain that doctors were on a mission held sway for long until, inevitably, it also came under pressure amidst new realities.

With the curse of education, the curtain was drawn on an age where everyone among the well-connected knew everyone worth knowing. The old rules where influence could land you the best treatment eroded, and alternately, everything was monetised. Now money was the only determining factor in how good a package you got.

This led to prosperity among the providers of these packages, yet the young doctors were still told that in their case, it will take time coming. They had to undergo strenuous, often inhuman and occasionally humiliating, drills at state-run facilities before they could lay their claim to a share of the paying patients

Even though journalists could hardly be faulted for forever adhering fast to their mission statement, on the public scale, teachers were the first in the trio of missionaries to rebel in favour of the material.

While teachers’ salaries remained low, post-school extra tuitions that cost spawned an altogether new era. Private tuition academies supporting the falling state schools mushroomed and this eventually led to the dominance of the much-promising and fee-guzzling private-sector educators.

By the time the young doctors in Lahore rose in revolt against their isolation from the new pay-and-perk system, only some reporters and sub-editors in some concealed newspaper offices were still being held hostage to the old mission. The media had prima facie undergone a money revolution, and teachers … everyone knew they had been for long making good bucks in their second job after sleeping through the mandatory hours in a state-run school.

With the number of patients always rising, and in their role of healers who directly dealt with ‘suffering humanity’, the doctors couldn’t avail this sleep-through facility even if they wanted to.

Much more tellingly perhaps, the curse of education had opened up new vistas of specialised treatment of ailments. The people wouldn’t spend under other heads but they had no option but to go to an expensive doctor.

For those who toiled as they went through the gruelling early mandatory regime at government-run hospitals believed that they were not being given their due share in the spoils. Or they felt that they were kept at bay for far too long or that due to the curse of education being accessible to more and more with the passage of time, there was greater competition among the professionals.

Anyway, they wanted prompter returns for the education grind they had undergone and the emotion borne out of the isolation from the new emerging system of good monetary perks for professionals came to the fore a couple of years ago in Lahore.

To their misfortune, the doctors’ drive came when resources required for redressing their problems were not that easy to come by.

More significantly, they were up against the nuclear might of a gentleman who proclaimed himself as a missionary, carrying out all his assignments with the necessary, or unnecessary, missionary zeal. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was visibly hurt by the very fact that a set of missionaries could stand up and leave work to press for an increase in salaries.

For the crucial years of the middle-class professionals’ monetary empowerment during the Musharraf period, Shahbaz Sharif had been away.

His rather outdated approach to solving the doctors’ issues was as much a gift of his angry desire to disregard whatever had taken place under Musharraf as it emanated from an unrealistic wish to resurrect his centralised and overtly moralised style of ‘good governance’, as he had practised it during his years as the chief minister in the 1990s.

The Punjab government has tried to address the problem of salaries for doctors employed in the state-run hospitals. The government has also, from time to time, flaunted the official and moral stick as well as suffering and the sick in an effort to browbeat doctors into accepting a compromise.

The ‘mission’ no on else in the society follows today has been central to the governmental counter campaign against the young protesting doctors.

The media, too, has rediscovered the sellable features of a mission so long it as is someone else’s responsibility to carry it out. The young doctors were initially portrayed as a group of professionals fighting for their rights. As days went by and a deal between the doctors and the government appeared increasingly unlikely and doctors were condemned on moral grounds, the media remained focused on one side: the unfortunate souls who were being denied treatment at government-run hospitals.

These were tragic scenes and sad have been the doctors’ actions. The snag is these troubles cannot be ended nor averted unless a serious dialogue towards a solution is earnestly undertaken.

Doctors can be blamed and taunted and condemned publicly. In some of the ugliest images of our times the doctors have now been raided and arrested and demonised, through news and adverts paid for by the Punjab government. But these demons have a point when they accuse the government of promising lots and delivering little, and then self-righteously debunking the protesters as a greedy bunch.

Even if a few missions are carried over from the past, a mission is best approached and realised where remunerations for the missionaries are commensurate with existing trends and where they are not being forced to work in isolation with the system at large.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.