The doctors strike will be in its eighth day by the time these words are read. About 15,000 patients have been denied treatment in the Outpatient Departments (OPDs) in Lahore alone and another 35,000 in hospitals, basic health units and rural health centres across the province — and there is no end to the strike in sight. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has weighed in saying that the doctors belong to a sacred profession — reminding them perhaps of their Hippocratic Oath — and that they have a duty to serve humanity no matter what the circumstances. Speaking from his camp office at the Minar-e-Pakistan he talked at length about the need for ‘equilibrium’ between doctors’ rights and duties. Ongoing talks between the Young Doctors Association (YDA), the Punjab government and various health organisations have failed again to make any progress and much of the population of Punjab — the poorest part of the population — is denied health care at the point of need.
There are two sides to every story and doctors do not go on strike over trifling matters. The dispute that has given rise to the strike centres on terms and conditions of service. The YDA said on Saturday that the government of Punjab has a budget of Rs17 billion for the building of new hospitals and medical colleges across the province, but that there is nothing to support the service structure or salary package for young doctors in the budget. The YDA claimed that doctors were the most underpaid professionals nationally, and that their salaries were significantly below that of neighbouring countries. It further complained that the Punjab government was misrepresenting the case by saying that the reverse was true, and that doctors were in fact the most highly paid of professionals. Payment of public-sector employees is often delayed or is below that which is agreed between employer and employee — and doctors are no less victims of a culture of ‘delayed payment’ that is rife across the country than are nurses or lady health workers in rural areas — groups which have struck in recent times for lack of pay and poor conditions of service. Grand building schemes are all very well, but a hospital is merely a political decoration piece if there are no doctors to man it. A balance needs to be struck between new construction and medical staffing, and there is an urgent need for some joined-up thinking about primary health care delivery. At the height of summer, when people may already be weakened by the heat and poor nutrition, denial of medical services is inevitably going to lead to needless death or injury. Both sides in this dispute need to take a dose of pragmatism before the wounds they are inflicting on a vulnerable population become terminal.