Dr Shakil Afridi's verdict: A can of worms

Shakil does not deserve to be called a doctor; he has broken trust and confidentiality – the essence of medicine.

Dr Mohammad Ali Rai May 29, 2012
Dr Shakil Afridi recently got sentenced to a virtual life-imprisonment, courtesy of the Jirga that decided his fate. Putting all emotions aside along with issues that surround the debacle of what remains of the US-Pakistani relationship, this case has raised some very pertinent and challenging questions, all of which stimulate yet more controversies

First things first - Afridi ran a fake vaccination campaign.

This is totally, irrefutably unethical on every level. The trust and bridges that international aid organisations have built over decades were swept away by one vain action of a doctor. People in Pakistan already look upon vaccination efforts as a ploy deployed by the Western world, and Afridi’s actions fit exactly in line with those conspiracy theorists. A lot has been written about this, and all international relief organisations have unanimously condemned this ruse of a vaccination campaign to rope in Bin Laden.

Coming to the other side, one can argue that Afridi was actually doing what the ISI and CIA should have done eons ago – finally catching someone who has caused more Pakistani loss of life than American harm. As they say ‘all is fair in war’, so intense circumstances dictated intense measures, and critics argue that Afridi had no other options.

The problem is that there are always other options. Even wars have some set ground rules, and wanton acts of stupidity are normally not sanctioned by any side. Having said this, it would only be fair that Afridi was given a chance to put forward his perspective. What is all the hoopla about? Only he has the answers and only he can address all his critics.

And in this sense his indictment seems a bit harsh – we never came to know the other side of the story. Surely he was not alone in running this fake vaccination campaign – there would have been definitely others – more so in the governmental ranks, if not the military. Did they all also share Afridi’s fate, or were they let scot-free, and only Afridi gets to face the music.

Having said all that, Afridi's case may have more than what meets the eye. The timing of the verdict, especially when talks on resuming the Nato supply line render more pressure from the Pakistani side as only helping to strengthen Pakistan’s stance, only help to add more to the drama.

If that is indeed the case, then Afridi is lucky to get away with a mere jail sentence, and not a noose around his head. If the purpose of all this was to send a signal to the Americans’ that we are sticking by our guns, and are willing to raise the stakes’ as high as possible, then Shakil is unfortunate to have got caught in the cross-fire. Indeed, this would also help to explain why the regular judicial process was thwarted and the traditional jirga process instituted, which not only saves rather inconvenient judgements, but also factors in the critical issue of time. And what better time than right now, when Pakistan can extract maximum leverage, and in essence, maximal dollars for every truck that passes by.

But in this high-stakes game, the point that should have been addressed vanishes in a haze of confusion and smoke.  The central question and concern should have been polio, and how the fake vaccination campaign is going to create more problems in future for Pakistan as we try to eliminate polio, something that seems to be slipping further and further away.

Afridi definitely does not deserve to be called a doctor anymore – as he has broken trust and confidentiality – the core essence of medicine. He should have been punished not as a pawn in the high stakes game of politics, but for abusing the trustworthy profession of medicine. It would have made much more sense had the charges instituted against him factored wrongful practice of the noble profession of medicine, rather than offences relating to treason.

Read more by Dr Rai here or follow him on Twitter @MAliRai
Dr Mohammad Ali Rai A graduate student at Oxford who lives and breathes politics and healthcare issues. He tweets @MAliRai
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