Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hippocratic Hippocrites

“I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity.”

I still remember my professor reciting this simple line when I was a young medical student. We were following him on his rounds, and at one point approached a patient possibly suffering from meningitis. The patient had thrown up, and the staff hadn’t gotten around to cleaning the floor by his bed. Our professor explained to us that this was not the patient’s fault and nothing about our demeanor should embarrass him. The fact that we were treating the patient was his right and our job. Then, he quoted this line from the Physicians’ Oath.

In the days that doctors all over Punjab decided to take a stand for what they considered to be their right, they went against the very grain of this oath. These doctors allowed their own needs to supercede the service of humanity. There is no going back from this, and no amount of sugar-coating can take away from the egregious wrong that was committed by them. But then we must also look at this event as a failure of society at some level. What led these doctors to go against an oath that is so sacrosanct?

The fact of the matter is that most doctors are not the heartless automatons that society makes them out to be. They are working at a profession drenched with the misery of humanity. They see and experience life at its most wretched on a daily basis. They literally struggle with life and death decisions every day, and don't always come out on the winning side. And then they have to shrug off the weight of their day and go home to deal with the mundane issues of life.

This is not to justify, in any way, the fact that the consequence of this strike was the loss of many lives and the deterioration of even more. This is not to deny the misery caused by this strike, or to ignore the negative impact it’s still having on so many innocents. On the contrary, I am trying to figure out what these demands were -- demands that would cause an entire organization of caregivers to turn their backs on those who need them the most.  And most of all, it is important to evaluate whether this was a selfish, destructive act by a group of professionals, or the complete failure of the government to resolve an issue before it caused loss of life and infinite suffering.

The Young Doctors Association were, in most part, asking for better pay, safer work environments and respect in the workplace.The Government of Punjab ended up accepting these demands after almost two weeks and many deaths. The bureaucrats kept whining about there being no money in the budget, but when you look at the way finances are handled, you wonder whether it is actually a budget deficit or just gross mismanagement.  Paychecks and worse, pension checks, are being withheld for the month of June by the government of Punjab. Why? June marks the end of the fiscal year, which means that it’s time for the government to air its dirty financial laundry for the world (or, at least, the people it “represents”) to see. So, in order to show less of a deficit than there actually is, it decided to withhold this money. As elected, democratic governments are wont to do. The funniest thing (not that anyone is laughing, really) is that everyone already knows this little “secret.” Looks like the cat’s out of the bag.


On the other hand, there is money for distributing laptops, and there is money to take young scholars on a trip to Europe (Which, I’m sure, everyone who’s been waiting indefinitely for a well-earned paycheck or a well-deserved pension check, appreciate fully). But, all these “good deeds” mean nothing when put up against a single life lost because a financial issue was not resolved fast enough.

Then, one starts to wonder if there is something wrong with the people we elect to office. I know that many will chuckle and say that I am stating the obvious, but I don't mean particular personalities. I mean the social status most politicians hail from: the privileged elite. If you belong to a class that flies to Dubai to be treated for the flu, and crosses oceans and continents for anything more serious than that,  then you probably don't know what it’s like in the OPD of a government hospital, or the everyday trials of a doctor on a remote posting.

These are issues with simple solutions. But solutions cannot be rendered if the responsible are oblivious to the nature or, at times, even the existence of these problems.  Rather, we are left at the mercy of fat-cat bureaucrats who cannot be bothered with certain crises, either because they think the problem will fizzle out or because they are busy elsewhere. Or, we have non-politicians, like Imran Khan, who takes every crisis as an opportunity to declare that he has a solution for it. Captain Khan can, apparently, solve any world crisis in 90 days or less -- but needs to be elected before he will actually do anything. Service without political office is not part of his plans.

By allowing the strike to come to a point where lives were lost is a failure on the part of the doctors who defied their oath and the governing authorities who failed to resolve the crisis in time. Maybe it is time for the common man to become  part of the ruling class. If a middle class medical student with first-hand knowledge of the hospital system becomes the health minister, he or she will be better able to resolve an issue before it becomes a full-blown problem. Only someone who has struggled towards success can truly know the struggles of others. We need leaders with a finger on the pulse of the man on the street, not industrialists and millionaires who have no idea what it is like to worry about a roof over your head and two square meals everyday.

Divided We Fall

This past week, violence in Karachi left its blood-stained calling card pinned to our family's door. Somebody decided to fulfill an unknown agenda by firing blindly into a crowd of people. I wonder if this heartless assassin smiled as my cousin fell to the ground, a bullet ripping through his body, nicking his spinal cord. If the killer felt satisfied while men lay dead or dying. If he felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done, a day well spent.

This son, father, beloved husband and darling little brother lay in Agha Khan Hospital, surrounded by a family too shocked by the sudden nature of this random cruelty to even question why. And as always, all hopes were pinned on the Divine and we prayed. Not only did we pray to Allah, we also begged all those around us to pray with us.

In a moment of desperation, I posted my request for prayers and good wishes on Twitter.

The response was overwhelming, but the tone was as unexpected as a slap across the face. The first response reprimanded me that Mohajirs don't follow the law and should be punished. Another responded that the Mohajirs cannot be blamed because the Pathans started it. Another immediately brought out facts and figures of those slain. In all of this, not once did I mention either the shooter’s or my own ethnicity, and not one person offered any kind words or prayers. This is what we have become.

But is this what we want to be? A nation of blame-gamers, for whom any incidence is an opportunity for pointing a finger. I feel especially let down when our party leaders, the people that we look towards for l guidance, add fuel to the fire. When PTI members staged a pro-judiciary rally and were forcefully dispersed,  they were ridiculed. Nobody thought to stand with them, which in itself is ridiculous. After all, isn't being pro-judiciary a good thing? When MQM decided to commemorate 15,000 slain Mohajirs with a Yom-i-Siyah (Bla on June 19th, not one political party condemned the killings. When rioters in Punjab spilled out into the streets and showed their anger at being deprived of electricity, a PML-N leader claimed on her Twitter  feed that they were non-locals. I would like to know what her definition of a non-local is? Is a non-local a non-PML-N member? Is it a non-Punjabi? Or is it a non-Pakistani? What does she think comments like this will do, other than monger more hate in an atmosphere already saturated with hate?

Creating dissension is never the answer. Divided, we will always fall.The man on the street doesn’t care where your father -- or his father, for that matter -- was born, or where your family was living on that fateful day in August of 1947. He just wants to go to work, to make an honest living, to provide for his family and most of all, he wants to grow old and watch his children grow up. He wants a life without mindless violence. In the end, the question is not who started it, but rather, who will end it.

...Yet Another Gate

Today on CNN, during his interview with Wolf Blitzer, Hussain Haqqani lamented the fact that Pakistan is becoming an isolationist country because of its policies. He indicated that these policies are the reasons Pakistan is struggling in international relations.  This emotion is also rampant  within Pakistan. Pakistanis have a nihilistic attitude towards each other. It is not Pakistanis against the world--it is Pakistanis against each other, at each others throat.

Right now Pakistan is at a very sensitive chapter of its story in an entire book of sensitive chapters. Multiple pillars of its foundation are crumbling simultaneously. A student of history would be hard taxed to find a time in the life of any country where the army, the judiciary, the sitting government, and the media were all involved in a circus of moral ambiguity.

Some might call it a conspiracy, a saazish. But as news anchor Talat Hussain said, the word saazish has been used in Pakistan so much that we have to think before we use it, implying that the word had lost its intensity with overuse.

The latest onslaught started with the rumor that a number of  journalists were being influenced by Malik Riaz, an influential real-estate tycoon. There was talk of transfers of cash, gifts of homes and cars. Historically, Malik sahab never shied from media coverage . At some point, allegedly, he decided that if he could get journalists to say what he wanted, the world would be a happier place for him. Soon after that, a list was circulated with names of journalists and a list after each name of the gifts they had received. Nobody knows for sure how that list found its way into the limelight.  A twitter frenzy ensued with denials flying fast and furious and the dissension among the ranks of news reporters became crystal clear. There was no teamwork, no camaraderie, no loyalties, no friendship. It was every man and woman for themselves. Friends did not vouch for friends. Colleagues did not become incensed over insulted friends. No! The theme was: I will take care of me and you can go down in flames! Good Luck!

I saw the same isolationism in the judiciary. The man in the center of that guessed it, the one and only, Malik Riaz.  He was ordered into court to present his case over the jaw-dropping allegations he made against the son of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. And not just any Chief Justice. Chaudhry Iftikhar will go down in the history of Pakistan as one of the toughest  judges the country has seen.  If Pakistan is Gotham he is Batman! If Pakistan is Metropolis, Chaudhry Iftikhar believes he is Superman. I think that if he wasn’t afraid of ridicule, the man would wear tights and a cape to work! Anyway, so Malik Riaz, to present his case to the court hired a lawyer: one Zahid Bokhari. And in a case of misplaced display of solidarity to the Chief Justice, the Lahore High Court Bar Association barred him from entering the premises. Why? The man was just doing his job. Even murderers and terrorists get lawyers and they are not ostracized. In fact, some of them are the most respected members of our judiciary. And why didn’t the Chief Justice instruct them to not act like spoiled children on his behalf?

The most damning bombshell came when someone leaked footage taken during breaks of an interview of none other than Malik Riaz. The footage showed that the entire interview was orchestrated by the Malik Sahab himself. During the break,  the anchors would discuss what to ask and when to ask particular questions. It became obvious that the management and owners of the studio were complicit in this charade. Especially,  when it was decided that if the program was flowing, breaks would not be taken. It is not often that anybody comes between a studio executive and his sponsers. Malik Riaz is that special.

The next few days will be dedicated to dissecting, analysing and condemning the incident. Jobs will be lost and heads will roll, not literally, I hope. I don't think that it is difficult to find out who had access to this footage. I’m sure there is a very limited number of people that could have gotten their hands on it. But that might just be oversimplifying the matter. Was it a vendetta against the journalists by Malik Riaz or vice versa. Was it the government or the judiciary or the new World Order. If you ask me, with apologies to Talat Hussain, it sounds like a saazish!