Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Aboard the First Metro

(Published in The News on February 13th, 2013)

Public transport is an essential component of urban planning. All major cities in the world have some form of public transport system to facilitate the daily commute for their denizens. The various kinds of public transport systems include underground subway tracks, trams, designated buses and rapid transit networks.

Unfortunately in Pakistan, there is a serious lack of viable public transport in all major cities. Karachi, with a population of 20 million people, Lahore with almost half this population and other cities like Peshawar and Rawalpindi have no real (public) transport facilities for their residents.

A subway system for Lahore was planned by the previous provincial government but it had to be abandoned due to technical and political reasons. Our country does not have enough power sources to fuel a subway system efficiently. To counter the over-flooding of roads by vehicular traffic, political administrators across the country have used a similar but flawed agenda: build more roads.

In the last decade, Karachi saw its fair share of digging and paving of roads, resulting in a network of bridges, underpasses, overhead bridges and expressways. This planning was short-term and in a few more years, roads are going to be clogged again. Lahore has a different story to tell.

According to a survey conducted last year, only about eight percent of the population has access to a private automobile in Lahore. Nearly twenty percent of the city commutes by bus and 40 percent gets about on foot.

The report also highlights that collectively Lahoris take an estimated 9.8 million trips a day. For a city of nearly 10 million, this figure is less than half of other cities of comparable size. In addition nearly 65 percent of Lahore’s population lives in about 10 percent of its footprint (the areas north of GT Road and the railway station) and the remaining 35 percent of the population occupy the remaining 90 percent with a low-density sprawl.

Over the years, many attempts have been made to solve Lahore’s traffic problems. The widening of Jail Road and Ferozepur Road in the 1990s; the construction of underpasses and the widening of Canal Bank Road; and the construction of Ring Road.

All these efforts have resulted in temporary relief for a few years followed by a return of congested roads. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to improve the archaic public transport system or to make the city bicycle-friendly.

Against this backdrop, work on the bus rapid transport system on Ferozepur Road was initiated. After eight months of toil, we finally have a new transport route in the city. I attended the inauguration ceremony for the bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Lahore and got a chance to take a ride on one of the first metro buses.

During the inauguration ceremony, we were regaled with the usual technical details about the project, followed by a lengthy address by the deputy prime minister of Turkey.

It should be noted that the Turkish government helped the local government with the infrastructure for the project due to their expertise with similar projects in Istanbul. The ceremony itself was grand with more than 3000 participants, including politicians from different parties, civil society members, civil servants, vice chancellors, businessmen, members of the media and students. After the ceremony, a ride in the buses was arranged across the length of Ferozepur Road.

Despite my scepticism, I found the buses comfortable with a separate space for women and adequate standing and sitting space for male passengers.

Our buses were welcomed by cheers throughout the 27 kilometre long journey by not only the ‘PML-N faithful’ but also from people standing on rooftops and travelling in their own vehicles. I believe this is a step in the right direction and similar projects have to be started in other cities of Pakistan.

However, one of the biggest concerns with the project is the fact that people who already have vehicles will not prefer to travel on the BRT buses. There are no parking spaces near the stations and the number of people who will stop using their own cars to use this facility is negligible.

Thus, this system will cater to people who are already travelling via public transport. This hardly helps the situation since the idea should be to ensure a safe, cheap method of commute that all citizens can use.

And then there is the huge economic cost of the project. For a pilot project, the amount spent has been extravagant. Punjab’s overdraft limit has already been exceeded and after spending Rs6 billion on the sasti roti scheme and a 40 percent overdraft on the laptop scheme, this kind of spending is not advisable.

In conclusion? Whatever the merits of the BRT system, it is not economically feasible for the province. Now that work has been completed and the project has started, one can only wish it the best of luck and hope that it is successful.

Doctors on Strike

(My first Article published in The News on 31st January, 2013)

A cat and mouse game is raging on between Young Doctors and Government of Punjab. There is a set pattern being followed by both sides, based on earlier skirmishes in the last two years. The primer is usually an untoward incident involving young doctors. As a consequence,there is outrage from young doctors while the government announces some form of committee to sort out the problem. Nothing discernible happens for next few weeks/months. Doctors come out on the streets and OPD(Out Patient Departments) are closed. A few individuals are dismissed from service by the Government and a few people are arrested. As a last resort, doctors announce withdrawal of emergency services, crippling the already overloaded public health system. Within a few days, some makeshift solution is cobbled up and things go back to normal. This routine is being followed for last 2 years and if things remain as they are, can be repeated this time as well.

Young Doctors have been branded assassins and mercenaries, devoid of all humanity,  sacrificing all moral values to bargain for their demands. Hundreds of doctors have been terminated  over the last two years, and dozens have been jailed. A vicious propaganda campaign was designed last year, costing the public exchequer more than 400 Million Rupees  to malign doctors. There is little understanding of the issue plaguing doctors in this country and they are seen with derision and contempt because they have the temerity to demand their rights. The most prevalent misunderstanding about the doctors’ protests is the belief that they are demanding a pay raise. While this was true two years ago, the issue of pays was resolved. Let me clarify that it is not mentioned anywhere in the Hippocratic or any other medical oath that doctors ‘have’ to provide medical care regardless of the conditions. Regarding the morality of strikes, Awais Aftab, a fellow doctor, explained,

A doctor enters into a contract with the society only by virtue of his contract with the Government, therefore, if the Government refuses to honor its obligation of providing adequate facilities and working conditions for the doctors, then the doctors’ obligation to work for the Government becomes questionable. This includes the issue of pay and service structure. If the amount of work and the circumstances in which they are expected to perform deviate significantly from the pay and facilities they are receiving, Government is violating its obligations. This can be augmented by a utilitarian justification. If the short-term harm brought about by the strike is balanced by a long-term benefit to the society in the form of an improvement in health-care, virtue of the fact that doctors can work more efficiently in better working conditions, then a strike is justified. But this utilitarian argument can only be an augmentation, not the crux, because we all know that human lives cannot be added and subtracted.”

The Prime demand of doctors is provision of a better service structure. The current structure is dependent totally on the whims of Baabus at Civil Secretariat who consider doctors as inferior and despicable species. There is no uniform system of promotion. I have documented cases of different doctors who graduated in the same year, from the same college, and having similar qualifications, where one of the two was promoted as a Professor and the other is still in grade 18. Hundreds of “relics of the past” are occupying positions in Major cities while young doctors are transferred to far flung areas. Professors of respective wards are kept busy in administrative affairs, affecting teaching schedules and regimes. Induction of doctors on Medical Officer posts is done via Federal Public Service Commission(FPSC). There were no inductions on regular seats for more than 15 years in the last two decades, contract employment was favored instead. Young Doctors in most major hospitals live in dilapidated hostels, single rooms shared by upto three people. More people do house jobs without any pay than those who get pay. These issue are important when you are doing more than 60 hours work per week without any reward.   

In November 2012, an agreement was reached between Young Doctors and Government of Punjab that the new service structure would be implemented. Two months after that understanding  there was no sign of implementation. The dispute over non-renewal of contracts and housing allowance was simmering in District Head Quarters(DHQ) Hosiptal Gujrawnala as a direct consequence of the non-implementation of doctors’ demands. A team of interlocutors from Lahore was there on 2nd January 2013 when the whole scene got ugly, resulting in physical violence by doctors and by hospital administration. It was broadcast on live television across the nation with some spiced up subtitles. As a result, more than a dozen doctors were arrested and are still in Jail. OPDs(Out Patient Departments) are closed throughout the province in protest and a major ‘Dharna’ has been planned for 7th February 2013.

Personally, I do not endorse the physical violence unleashed by young doctors in Gujranwala and want an impartial inquiry into the matter. Apart from that, I stand by the doctors’ community in the struggle for the proposed(and agreed-upon) service structure. Government of Punjab has tried all sorts of delaying tactics including court delays, invitation to 200 Army doctors, induction of substandard doctors during the strikes and police torture. As a doctor and as a human being, I hope the issue is resolved completely this time, or both sides are going to lose.

Public Health Care in Pakistan: A basket case

(Originally Published in two parts in The News as "Our Sickly Health Care" on February 7 and February 8 2013)

"The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being"
according to the constitution of World Health Organization.
The constitution of Pakistan guarantees basic rights and liberties to all citizens of the state. These rights derive from fundamental principles of justice in accordance with which the State of Pakistan assumes the sole monopoly of power over its citizens. To provide health facilities to the citizenzs, there is a Universal Health Care system in Pakistan. This means that any citizen of Pakistan can get treatment at public sector health care facilities in the country. Pakistan has a wide network of healthcare infrastructure, including 919 hospitals, 5334 Basic Health Units (BHUs) and Sub-Health Centres, 560 Rural Health Centres (RHCs), 4712 Dispensaries, 905 Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Centres and 288 Tuberculosis Centres. This system is supposed to cater to a population of around 190 million people.

Thus, one doctor at a public hospital is supposed to cater to about 1724 people, while 1504 people have to vie for a single bed at a public hospital. In a physician per 1000 people statistic, Pakistan ranks 120th among 200 countries, with only India, Iran and Egypt among developing nations below us.

Pakistan is among the only three countries left in the world with Polio Virus infection, the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria. Recent reports indicate that Karachi, Peshawar and Hyderabad,Lahore and Rawalpindi have turned ‘polio-endemic’ due to continuous detection of the wild poliovirus virus type-1 in the sewage samples collected from there. There are more than a million people in Pakistan have Chronic Liver Disease while 10% of the population has had exposure to Hepatitis B and C viruses. As many as 1.2 million people die of waterborne diseases in Pakistan every year, of them 250,000 are children under the age of five years. In a recent meeting organized by a public health research and consultancy firm, 54% of the most serious crises and shocks Pakistan has suffered in the last three years have been health-related as compared to only 3% that have been law and order related.

We have had brushes with Widespread Dengue Virus Infection, the PIC(Punjab Institute of Cardiology)-Syndrome outbreak, Naegleria Infection in Karachi and the very recent Cough Syrup-controversy. To quote a report by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics,
“Pakistan’s health care system is inadequate, inefficient, and expensive; and comprises an under-funded and inefficient public sector along with a mixed, expensive and unregulated private sector. These poor conditions in the health sector may be attributed to a number of factors like poverty, malnutrition, unequal access to health facilities, inadequate allocation for health, and high population growth and infant mortality.”

There is acute shortage of data for health indicators in Pakistan. Health, is not a priroity of either the Government, or the people, until an emergency strikes. Every new government has brought in new health policies but implementation of these policies has not been undertaken over time. Take the case of Punjab. It is the most populated province of Punjab. There has been no Health Minister for the last 5 years and the Chief Minister has kept the portfolio with himself. The current government has opened medical colleges in almost all major cities of Punjab over the last 4 years. The lack of planning is apparent in this case as no new teaching hospital has been established and retaliatory shelving of plans by the previous government has affected the system. Without proper teaching hospitals, medical students graduating from newer colleges will have to move to other cities for getting better exposure to clinical training. The last teaching hospital established in Punjab was Jinnah Hospital, in Lahore, in the mid-90s.  Regarding retaliatory politics, the half-complete building of Wazirabad Institute of Cardiology is a living testament.

Started on the orders of the previous Chief Minister, this project aimed at catering to cardiac patients between Lahore and Rawalpindi and adjoining areas. At present, if a person needs cardiac care in Gujranwala/Gujrat/Jhelum area, he/she needs to visit either Lahore or Rawalpidni due to lack of any facilities nearby. Time, though is a crucial matters in cases of Heart disease and an early detection can significantly improve chances of Improvement. Patients are brought from all over northern part of Punjab to Lahore because of Lahore-centric health spending. There are 17 medical colleges in Lahore, compared to 17 in the rest of the province. For about 600 burn patients annually, there are a grand total of THREE specialized burn centers in Punjab. Similarly, only 155 mechanical ventilators are available in Lahore’s public hospitals for a patient load of more than 5 hundred thousand patients every month. 

Tubeculosis, Hepatitis, Cholera, Malnutrition,Polio and recently, Measles, are some of the major problems being faced by the Public health providers. With the advent of Breaking News culture, any issue deemed imprtant by the media becomes important, public health almost never makes the cut, unless there is significant panic, as in cases of Dengue, PIC-syndrome and Cough Syrup-controversy. High mortality rates don’t bring high ratings, thus no need to focus on the isssue, let the children die. Newborns only matter when bitten by mice etc, that sells. The dismal condition of public health infrastructure has given rise to a popular phenomenon in Pakistan; People taking up things in their own hands. We required a public ambulance service, Cue Edhi and Cheepa. We needed good schools and Universities; Enter Private Schools and Universities. Similarly, to fill the huge void of public health, private entities and charity based organization stepped in. Currently, almost 80% of health sector in Pakistan is based in Private sector.

For a self-respecting middle class Pakistani, visiting a public sector hospital is nothing less than a nightmare. Due to over-burden of patient load, resources dry up fast. Data collected by the author for one particular ward at a teaching hospital in Lahore revealed that in a duration of 24 hours, around 700 patients visited the medical emergency of the hospital. There were only 45 beds available in that particular ward. At the end of 24 hours, 60 patients had been admitted, resulting in patients having to share beds in majority of cases. There is acute shortage of beds in teaching hospitals and there are no plans on the horizon till now that anything is going to be done in this regard. According to figures from last budget, Punjab Government has allocated a spending of Rs 120 for every citizen of Punjab. That is not sufficient even if you want 2 surgical sutures.!!

There is an overall sense of pessimism in the Public Hospitals, which ultimately leads to the exodus of doctors to greener pastures. This is just the tip of the iceburg. All doctors are not god-fearing, messianic figures either. A lot of senior doctors practice twice a day; spending morning in government hospitals and evenings at private clinics. Then there is the issue of equipments and their effective running. Two months ago, the X-ray machine at the largest hospital of the Province was out of order, and remained like that for at least two weeks. No heads rolled. No reporting in the media. Situation is even worse in other provinces. There are hardly any specialized centers in Balochistan or even Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(excluding Peshawar) or Gilgit Baltistan. 

It is the first law of Health Economics that 
“ Increased Spending on health leads to increase in per capita GDP”. Currently less than 2% budget is allocated for Health Sector and even with this pittance, the behemoth of public health care system is functioning admist crises. The first and foremost solution to the numerous problems is presence of political will to spend more money on healthcare. Until that will is mustered, there is scant chance of improvement in the system.

Furthermore, there are significant Problems concerning public health both at the policy and implementation level, especially after the devolution of Health Ministry to Provinces. Spending has to be increased, population explosion has to be halted, Long term policies have to adopted to increase the outreach of public sector healthcare, private sector needs to be regulated, more Teaching hospitals and specialized centres need to be established in areas like FATA, Balochistan, Southern Punjab and Gilgit Baltistan.Our State has failed in providing the citizens good health care and it  is affecting the whole economy. Media and civil society have an increased role to play in this regard, because of negligent behaviour of the state. One of the tenets of the doctors’ movement has been increased spending on public hospitals and decrease in VIP protocol patients. Very recently, category for “poor” patients was shelved by the administration at Punjab Institute of Cardiology and no one has taken any notice of that.

It should not be forgotten that a state that absolves itself of its responsibilities, is paving way for its own downfall. Spending public money on flyovers, foreign visits and security guards is not going to solve the problems of health and education in this country.