Now that the Punjab government has decided to take the path of union-busting against the striking doctors in public hospitals, it has a huge task ahead of it – as evidenced by Monday’s developments.
The Punjab government made frantic efforts to restore some semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos at state-run hospitals – but not before the stand-off between the government and the protesting medics from the Young Doctors Association (YDA) threatened to spread to other provinces.
Police detained dozens of medics from the YDA in late-night raids on Sunday and again on Monday after intermediaries failed to win over the doctors who have been on strike for over two weeks now.
However, the move had its repercussions – which reverberated across the country. Incensed by the crackdown in Punjab, doctors in Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa also boycotted OPDs in state-run hospitals, and have threatened to go on strike if their detained peers in Punjab were not released.
In Lahore, Out-Patient Departments (OPDs) at most public hospitals reopened after a two-week hiatus. Hundreds of new medics joined the health department on Monday – half of them were assigned Lahore’s hospitals. In addition to that, 150 doctors from Pakistan Army also joined duties – more than half of them in the provincial capital.
Authorities also invoked the Essential Services Act 1958 and fired 27 young doctors for not reporting for duty. Another 360 medics were detained under the 16 Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) law. The government has decided to get tough with the protesting doctors and find replacements to make up for the shortage caused by the YDA strike.
As expected, accusations of negligence-related deaths began to pour in on Monday.
At Lahore’s Mayo Hospital, doctors confirmed that three patients, namely Ulfat Bibi, Muhammad Malik and Muhammd Nazir, died. However, they stressed that they died natural deaths and that they were not caused by the YDA strike.
Separately, a court remanded four YDA officials into police custody for four days on charges of criminal negligence. Dr Matloob, President YDA Mayo Hospital, Dr Usmanul Haq, Joint Secretary YDA Punjab, Dr Tajamal Butt, General Secretary YDA Mayo Hospital and their fourth associate are accused of removing a drip from an infant at Mayo Hospital who died subsequently.
In the textile city of Faisalabad, health authorities worked on war footing to make up for the shortage of doctors at Allied and Divisional Headquarters hospitals and Faisalabad Institute of Cardiology.
“Around 100 lady doctors recruited through the Punjab Public Service Commission have been posted at Faisalabad hospitals. Of these, 17 lady doctors have taken over the charge,” Dr Abdur Rauf, the executive district officer health, told journalists.
A seriously-ill man, Muhammad Asghar, died at the District Headquarters Hospital purportedly waiting for medics to attend to him. With the latest death, the number of people died “due to the doctors’ strike” has risen to seven, according to Dr Rauf.
In Rawalpindi’s District Headquarters Hospital, a teenager died of fever allegedly because no medic was available to attend to him.
Muhammad Jahangir, 13, was brought to the hospital with fever symptoms, according to his mother. “She literally begged the medics to attend to her ailing son, but to no avail,” the attendant of another patient told the media.
After the teenager’s death, the family staged a vociferous protest outside the hospital against the administration. Interestingly, local lawmaker Malik Shakeel Awan exonerated the medics of negligence charge and instead faulted the family.
In a related development, Principal of the Rawalpindi Medical College Dr Mussadaq Khan said summer vacations of all teaching staff have been cancelled and they have directed to report on duty at three hospitals of the city.
Medics in Sindh gave the Punjab government until Tuesday to release all detained doctors or else they would also go on strike.
“The governments of Punjab and Sindh will be responsible for any deaths as a result of our strike,” Dr Samrina Hashmi, the president of the Pakistan Medical Association, Sindh chapter, told a news conference.
Doctors in most state-run hospitals of the province wore black armbands to express solidarity with their colleagues in Punjab.
PMA official Dr Mirza Ali Azhar endorsed the YDA demands and faulted the Punjab government for the Sunday night crackdown on medics. “Their (YDA)’s method may be wrong, but their demands are not,” he added.
In Peshawar, too, doctors supported their colleagues in Punjab. The YDA, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chapter, threatened to boycott OPDs in all state-run hospitals to express solidarity with their peers.
“We will boycott OPDs in all major hospitals of the province to press the government to release all detained doctors and accept their demands,” Dr Haider Shah, the provincial spokesperson for the YDA, told The Express Tribune.
The YDA, Balochistan chapter, boycotted OPDs in all state-run health facilities of Quetta. The Express Tribune correspondent saw long queues of patients at the OPDs of major health facilities, including Helper’s Hospital, Bolan Medical College Teaching Hospital, Fatima Jinnah TB Sanatorium and Sandeman Hospital.
YDA official Dr Shahzada came down hard on the Punjab government for “using force against young doctors”. He endorsed the demands of the YDA Punjab and called on the government to accept the demands.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, doctors decided to observe a two-hour strike daily from Tuesday (today). “We stand by our colleagues in distress in Lahore and other parts of Punjab,” Ejaz Ali, President of the G-B chapter of Pakistan Medical Association, told The Express Tribune.
(MUDASSIR RAJA in Rawalpindi, SEHRISH WASIF in Islamabad, SAMIA MALIK in Karachi, SHABBIR MIR in Gilgit and our correspondents in Faisalabad and Quetta)
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2012.