The health of our values

Outrage, views about lives of the most vulnerable are no longer about value of life, but shrouded in cloak of politics

Muhammad Hamid Zaman December 08, 2014

Disturbing would be an understatement. The recent crises in the health sector just in the last few weeks, from the deaths of infants due to lack of basic medical equipment in multiple central hospitals, to kids dying of starvation in Thar, to the cold-blooded murders of polio workers, to the confusion around HIV-infected blood given to thalassaemia patients, should make us pause, to wonder if the system is crumbling or if it has reached the same elite status as our railways.

The immediate reaction, and not an entirely unreasonable one, is to blame the various governments, and those in power and lament the lack of resources. The lack of will to change, the inability in governance and the complete absence of strategy or even competence are indeed factors that are responsible for the rapidly deteriorating health infrastructure. But blaming the lack of resources alone is naive. There are plenty of nations, around the world, with fewer resources than us, where mothers do not die at the same rate as they do in Pakistan. Plenty of poorer countries do better in infant mortality than we do. True, resources and resource-management is critical, but we have to think about our own views and priorities as well, and wonder if they are somehow also contribute to the current crisis?

We live in a world where those who are looked up to, discuss with ease and at length, why women, of every era are fundamentally flawed, and why they can never be “reformed”. Equally problematic is the fact that only a few raise any eyebrows and even fewer condemn presence and proliferation of such sick and misogynistic ideas. In a world where our thought leaders are free to give women a sub-human identity (equal citizenship would be a step too far), where basic dignity and respect of half our population is non-existent, expecting major efforts to change the status quo in maternal health would be just silly. The problem, therefore, lies in not only the government, which has plenty of blame to share, but in all of us as well. We think of women’s health as charity, not as a basic human right.

The class system that plagues our minds when dealing with women is also present in our ill-crafted efforts dealing with health challenges facing the marginalised and the poor. The people of Thar, while resilient, culturally rich, patient and tolerant are unfortunately not among the richest in the country. Their health is never a priority for us. The fact that in this day and age, children can die of starvation does not shame us to the core. The polio workers, who risk and often lose their lives, do not have anyone to speak for them in parliament or the palaces of power. For as long as we continue to consider them as ‘them’ and not ‘us’, little is going to change.

Our outrage and views about lives lost of the most vulnerable are no longer about the value of life itself, but are shrouded in an ugly cloak of politics. My friends send me stories about deaths of beautiful children by starvation, or the reports of infected blood given to those who are in dire need, as another proof of government incompetence, not as something that is tragic and unacceptable at a fundamental human level. For us, the loss of life, the dilapidation of our public health infrastructure, the proliferation of disease is not about the collective loss, but about having ammunition to use in the next speech or during the upcoming talk show. There is no argument that incompetence that leads to the loss of a loved one is indefensible, but we have to ask ourselves, what bothers us more — the loss of life or the fact that it happened under the watch of someone we hate with such vigour?

Pakistan’s public health system needs many urgent reforms — and I hope we get to see the day when those reforms are enacted — but so do our own views. Perhaps, a reform or two on that front is all we need to bring a sustainable change at the national level.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th,  2014.

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chacha | 7 years ago | Reply

I actually disagree with the author. The performance of KPK government is well above the rest - certainly compared to Sindh and Punjab - KPK has delivered big time in health.

Faisal | 7 years ago | Reply

Another polio worker shot - another day of silence from those who have the powers - another day of no self reflection. When will this end? when will we change ourselves?

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