In a world where the fear of a pandemic has rules which no one really understands — one of them being that if you have this ‘deadly virus’, you must isolate, stay at home and don’t see a doctor; and if you do happen to die, God forbid, the main reason could only be due to ‘neglect’ from doctors and other fellow human beings.
It appears that Covid-19 will not kill as many people, as will these continual lockdowns along with neglect of patients. The Lancet report predicts a substantial increase of avoidable cancer deaths as a result of diagnostic delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. While the Royal College of Psychiatrists is warning that people with no history of mental illness are developing serious psychological problems as a result of lockdown, amid growing stresses over isolation and an uncertain future. In the UK if you have another serious condition, the only way you can see a doctor is through your phone screens from where they may be able to make out what is your illness. The essential human comforting contact is rarely available.
It was under these conditions of continual lockdowns and being forced to stay in doors for weeks that has led many Londoners to become medical tourists and fly out with their illnesses to saner climes, to receive medical attention. In my case it was Pakistan, thanks to a well-connected friend who invited me to see her exceptionally renowned Pakistani surgeon, as no one was taking my ready-to-burst gall bladder seriously in the UK. Researching about medical tourism in Pakistan I found that the country had exceptional highly experienced doctors and surgeons. Also that long before the issue of Covid-19 popped its ugly head and alienated the medical profession from suffering patients, Pakistan was fast becoming popular as a destination for cosmetic surgery, dentistry and heart surgery at reasonable rates, while its vast diaspora of Pakistanis settled in western countries always resorted back to their home country for any medical emergencies.
However, the country has taken on more importance thanks to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s policy of smart lockdowns allowing the country to observe the mandatory masks but operating as normal with regards to essential medical facilities. As a result, a steady flow of patients has started to make their way to the country, knowing that they will find some sanity or should I say normality, where they won’t have to suffer in ‘isolation’ or neglect.
The plane was full of people escaping the confusion, which is now the UK. However, the irrationality continued in the British Airways plane where BA staff insisted on face masks, which could be removed for thirty minutes or so to eat food. Apparently during the 30 minutes Covid will not attack us, nor will it attack us while we are sitting in the plane like a tin of sardines with no hint of social distancing.
Who would have thought twenty years ago that the tables would have turned, the flow to the affluent medically advanced West would be flowing back, starting off as a trickle and turning into a flow of westerners seeking medical attention not available or sufficient in western medical facilities, and if they are then at astronomical costs.
When Imran Khan stated that Pakistan has the potential to become a world renowned tourist resort due to its untapped natural beauty and historical sites, he forgot to mention the fact that it was already becoming a hub for medical tourists. Many people from the Middle East have been coming here for decades for serious operations, like heart surgeries, besides thousands from the diaspora of Pakistanis living around the world for being unable to afford the costs or, as is the case now, losing faith in western medical practices, which rely heavily on painkillers and anti-depressants as some medical reports testify.
In the waiting room of Dr Muhammad Sajid Sheikh, a renowned Pakistani surgeon, I met a London-based Pakistani patient who informed me that she had to fly urgently to Pakistan in a wheelchair as she was unable to walk due to an inflamed gall bladder that a London hospital had refused to operate on as “her temperature was not high as yet” and to wait until it gets to that point. Her relatives spoke to a known surgeon who said he was ready to attend to her as soon as she arrives in the country. Her operation was a success and she now had come back to see if he can attend to her hiatus-hernia that was causing her an inability to eat anything and all London doctors could offer her was an anti -acidity pill.
Explained to me, Dr Sheikh said: “We have many patients from US and UK for medical treatment that the medical facilities in their own countries could not resolve or were made to wait months in pain for surgery”. He said: “recently I had two patients – one from London another from Muscat who had gall bladders in a critical condition and needed urgent surgery. Most of my patients come to me through word of mouth and the fact that I operated on one of their relatives or friends and they were happy with the results.”
The calls for Pakistan government to support and develop medical tourism have been made as far back as 2017 when at a medical event which was addressed by Dr Aurangzeb Khan and Dr Hanif Saeed, amongst many other prominent doctors, who spoke of the need to develop this sector further. They spoke about how India and Turkey are attracting patients for liver, kidney and heart transplants and how expatriate Pakistanis annually visit the country for dental procedures, eye surgeries, general surgeries – something which affirms that local health experts are as good as foreign surgeons and experts.
Renowned Hair Transplant Surgeon Dr Hanif Saeed highlighted how Turkey receives hundreds of European patients seeking hair restoration therapies, but Pakistan’s medical practitioners can carry out these medical procedures more effectively, also at cheaper rates. Dr Saeed called on the government to promote Pakistani hair transplant surgeons as well as facilities available here and said: “Pakistani specialists can fetch millions worth of foreign exchange for the country if medical tourism is promoted”.
Owais Kabani highlights the potential of medical tourism in research paper ‘Pakistan as a medical tourism destination, Just wishful thinking?’ He argues that medical tourism industry is in fact considered as one of the fastest growing industry and highlights a 2013 report by Transparency International which states that in the year 2012, the global medical tourism market which was valued at over $10.5 billion “is estimated to grow at an average rate of 17.9% to a remarkable value of $38.3 billion by 2020”.
Being widely appreciated in the West is Imran Khan’s smart lockdown strategy which advocates a humane balance between lives and livelihood, whereby masks are observed while people armed with their Islamic faith bravely continue to work for their livelihoods, and Covid-19 cases are low. It may also be that they are also aware that poverty and hunger is a worse threat than Covid-19.
It is a pity the West hasn’t implemented this balance between ‘lives and livelihood’. In UK, for example, the continual fear mongering and lockdowns have not brought down the cases of Covid-19. They have rather increased the numbers, besides bringing an economic nightmare of job losses, homelessness, poverty and a ‘tsunami’ of pending health issues.