Hollow development

Published: January 9, 2017
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

An innocent girl gets beaten up and burned in the home of a judge. A mother dies on the cold floor of a ward because no hospital is willing to give her a bed. Yet, we are told to believe that we are developing fast.

The case of Tayyaba has gotten some attention among the civil society, and credit must be given to social and electronic media for keeping the story alive. That said, a lot more needs to be done to protect our children against demonic acts by the family, guardians and the society at large.

Unfortunately, the situation of Zahra Bibi has already faded and is now the annals of old news. This should not be acceptable. Zahra Bibi, 60 years old, and a resident of Kasur, came to Lahore to seek treatment after she was refused treatment at the Kasur DHQ Hospital. In Lahore, she first came to the Punjab Institute of Cardiology, where the “diagnosis” was of “some kidney problem” and was referred to the Services Hospital. She was looked at the entrance of emergency at Services Hospital, and told to go to Jinnah Hospital as there were no beds at Services Hospital. Jinnah Hospital had no beds either, so she was given a drip while she was lying down on the cold floor. Her condition worsened in the bitter cold. She died soon after.

An elderly woman, dying on the floor of a hospital, should prick our individual and collective conscience. For provincial health minister Khawaja Salman Rafique to blame this on population growth is outright insulting to those who fall sick. The population of Lahore or Kasur did not magically explode overnight. The lack of facilities for the poor, to even get a bed should they fall sick, is a manifestation of the failure of governance, not an explosion of population. While the population issue is serious, it should not be used as a scapegoat to hide our failures. A visit from the CM to Zahra Bibi’s home, and a three-member committee to investigate sounds a lot nicer than it is. I wonder if the report of the three-member committee would be made public, and apart from a few publicly announced suspensions and chest-thumping after those, anything tangible will happen at our hospitals. In the end, it is a small and ineffective bandage on a large, infected and gushing wound.

Doctors and patients interviewed after the tragedy that took Zahra Bibi’s life all agreed that lack of beds, and ill treatment of patients is not at all uncommon in public hospitals. Many more Zahra Bibis never make it to the news every day. This appalling tragedy should make anyone pause before any tall claims of development can be made.

The tragedy is also yet another opportunity to analyse the system and identify where new solutions, that are innovative in their conception and their implementation, can come from. It is also an opportunity to do a rigorous analysis of our public health infrastructure, and to open a national discourse on how to best use our resources, intellectual, financial and technological to bridge those gaps. It is an opportunity to engage not just the public health sector, but members of other sectors, including social scientists, researchers, technologists and experts in creating public-private partnership. More importantly, it is an opportunity to do some deep self-reflection about where we stand and where we are headed. The development of a society cannot be measured in the number of laptops the tenth graders have, or the spaghetti loops of over and underpasses. It is not about how many apps are available in the private and the public sector, or about the performance of a stock exchange. It is about how we take care of the poor, of the minorities and those who do not get to drive around in the shiniest of cars and long entourages that block the traffic for hours.

The void in our development is not going to be filled by zigzagging roads from a foreign investment, but an investment in the core values of the rule of law, fairness, decency and kindness.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2017.

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