Thousands of patients across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are suffering because doctors and paramedics are on a strike which was triggered by a controversial law passed by the provincial assembly on September 27.
Both sides – the government and the protesters – are refusing to show any flexibility on their positions to end the strike and resume routine activities which have been disrupted for over two weeks. Instead, it appears the government is taking aggressive steps which are further fuelling resentment on the opposing side. As a result, poor patients of the province who travel from rural areas to the provincial capital, or to other cities, are suffering.
Among them is 45-year-old Amir Ali, a disabled patient, who reached the Khyber Teaching Hospital of Peshawar from Kurram for a check-up. However, for five consecutive days he was told he cannot access his doctor who was treating his seizures. “I have to stay in Peshawar until the doctor examines me and prescribes further treatment. I have finished the dose which he had prescribed in the last visit,” Amir said, adding that he can’t switch doctors in the middle of the treatment.
On September 27, things went out of control when Peshawar police beat doctors who were holding a protest demonstration. At least 10 doctors were injured and over a dozen were booked for rioting
Forty-year-old Muhammadullah from Mohmand reached the hospital for an emergency appendix surgery. “I can’t afford to go to a private hospital. I am daily wage worker. I could only come here and the doctor in my village told me to rush to Peshawar for immediate surgery. But here I am faced with the strike,” he said. He said a private hospital will charge him at least Rs20,000 for the procedure which he can’t afford.
Doctors have boycotted elective services, including the routine operations and examining outpatients in public health facilities across the province. In an unprecedented move, they have also shut down private clinics, disrupting the entire health system in the province.
Trouble started when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Regional and District Health Authorities Act 2019 in the provincial assembly.
Doctors are terming this move “privatization of the health sector” and are asking the government to repeal the law. The government is insisting that the bill is aimed at giving financial and administrative control of health facilities to autonomous board of governors at districts and regional levels.
On September 27, things went out of control when Peshawar police beat doctors who were holding a protest demonstration. At least 10 doctors were injured and over a dozen were booked for rioting by the police which resorted to baton charge and teargas shelling inside the province’s largest public health facility, the Lady Reading Hospital. The situation got so dire, the district administration of Peshawar imposed Section-144 in the hospital.
The next day, there were no protesters at the hospital taken over by the police armed with batons. However, the OPD (Out Patients Department) was empty and those who had travelled to the hospital from remote areas of KP had to return unexamined.
The government’s firm stance over the law has led to the creation of Grand Health Alliance (GHA) in KP. Nurses and other paramedical staff have also joined this alliance.
The use of force against doctors drew widespread criticism on social and mainstream media. People lashed out at the provincial government for failing to settle the matter through dialogue.
Opposition leaders in the provincial assembly also criticised the government for using force against the protesting doctors. Opposition parties in the province, including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami and Awami National Party, are holding meetings with the doctors and supporting their stance. Representatives of the GHA have met with the JI and JUI-F chiefs who have assured their support for them in the strike.
The government has been trying to undermine the doctors’ narrative by terming it propaganda. It has issued advertisements in the media and officials have held talks with the press threatening protesting doctors and paramedics of strict disciplinary action if they did not end the strike.
KP information minister Shaukat Yousufzai calling doctors “Pakora vendors of Khyber Bazar” in a press conference further embarrassed the provincial government. He, along with Health minister Hisham Inamullah, was forced to tender an apology and take back his words.
Although Shaukat attempted to blame the media for twisting his words, social media was full of memes ridiculing him. Shaukat, in an apparently proud tone, stated while answering a question that these doctors and engineers used to sell Pakoras in Khyber Bazar before their government. “When the PTI government came, it created jobs for them,” he said.
On October 4, the Peshawar High Court directed the provincial government to release detained doctors on the condition that they will submit affidavits committing to resuming their duties and will refrain from boycotting or instigating others.
The GHA issued statement that they would not seek bails for their detained representatives at the cost of the on-going strike. They said that their representatives would rather stay in jail rather than get bails on the condition that they end the strike.
On October 8, the GHA held a press conference in Peshawar in which they said the detained doctors were being tortured. Their lawyers and family members were not allowed to visit them, doctors told newsmen. They said that the alliance would continue their struggle until the KP Regional and District Health Authorities Act 2019 was repealed.
The government is unmoved by the strike. After the GHA press conference on Monday, the government issued transfer postings of 14 lower cadre staff, including sweepers and ward orderlies of Khyber Teaching Hospital, to other districts for their involvement in the strike. The government also terminated Assistant Professor Dr Ziauddin Afridi from service for misconduct and indecency.
Ziauddin had thrown eggs on Nausherwan Burki in May in the hospital. Burki is said to be a close relative of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the person behind the drastic changes in the health sector in KP.
“The government’s rigidity is unprecedented. There are no signs of negotiations from both sides,” says journalist Manzoor Ali Shah. “The only way to resolve the issue is by engaging in talks. Any further delay means more and more suffering for poor patients.”
Manzoor believes that for the doctors, it is their last chance to force the government to repeal the law, while for the government it seems impossible to do away with it. “There should be some middle ground on which both parties agree as both want to improve the health system. Reforms cannot be introduced in any sector without taking on board the people who are part of it. This government has experimented with a number of laws aimed at reform but most of them were useless as the people affected by these reforms were not factored in.”
The writer is a journalist based in Peshawar