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Harvest of mistrust and ignorance

Opinion

June 6, 2020

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

For years now, we have been feeding on a steady diet of mistrust of every institution and segment of society. Pick any power center – bureaucracy, politicians, military, feudals, industrialists, judiciary, media, clerics – and it is accused of its unique brand of corruption.

It does not end there, but trickles down to every other business, trade, profession and section of society – for example: manufacturers adulterate, wholesalers hoard, retailers price-gouge, cops demand bribes, lawyers buy false witnesses, teachers do not teach so they can charge students for tuition services, etc. Name a job, and there is an accusation, a negative stereotype for it.

Add to this the widespread ignorance that comes from a narrow mental horizon, inability to think rationally and too much WhatsApp scholarship, irrespective of whether one holds a high school diploma or university degree. Just last week, I saw a foreign qualified PhD holder spreading conspiracies on Facebook that they “have confirmed from four or five sources” that doctors are paid $10,000 for each fatality they declare a Covid-19 victim. This health crisis is once again revealing that having a paper diploma is no guarantee for not being a complete moron.

Trust in professional expertise only extends to people in our immediate circle of friends and family. When such expertise is not available in the immediate social circle, people will trust their gut and forwarded WhatsApp messages from friends more than a qualified professional who is a stranger. We are seeing this mistrust in expertise, in authority, in government play out during the outbreak of Covid-19 and are about to reap the harvest that years of seeding mistrust and ignorance has wrought.

Health experts had been exhorting the public to take precautionary measures to avoid infection by Covid-19 since January. But a poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan through March and April published on April 28 shows that since March, three out of five Pakistanis continue to believe that the threat of coronavirus is exaggerated (https://gallup.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/28th-April-2020-English-6.pdf).

To make matters worse, people flouting precautionary measures saw the weak support and ambiguity for lockdowns and safety measures from a feckless prime minister, who appears to consider wearing a facemask detrimental to his macho image, much like Trump, Bolsonaro and other populists of that ilk. Add to that our usual nonchalant attitudes and a tradition of ridiculing safety measures (eg, not wearing seat belts / bike helmets, over-speeding, running red / yellow traffic lights, and now, not social distancing or wearing masks) and it is easy to see that we are collectively courting disaster.

But events are about to overtake us. Since the lockdown was practically lifted before Eid, the number of Covid cases in Pakistan has rocketed past 75,000. A few days ago, hospitals in Faisalabad, then Karachi, then Islamabad /Rawalpindi reached capacity. Then what? What comes next was as foreseeable as the break of dawn after night. A population that was largely in denial about the threat and cost the Covid-19 pandemic would extract is reacting with violence.

Pakistan has been seeing increased violence against medical staff and hospital vandalism since at least April. It does not require a big stretch of the imagination to see how this problem will be further exacerbated as cases grow and hospitals and medical staff remain overwhelmed, overworked, and under-resourced.

In May alone, Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center and Civil Hospitals in Karachi, Mayo hospital in Lahore, in Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar saw incidents of physical and verbal abuse of doctors and vandalism trashing hospital property by angry mobs of relatives of Covid patients. Reasons varied from anger over death of a Covid-19 patient, refusal by hospital staff to take dead bodies of patients, and refusal to admit Covid patients due to lack of space. A few nights ago, there was similar violence at Civil Hospital Karachi, and things are about to get more desperate. People are desperately hunting for hospital beds with ventilators in Karachi for their loved ones. Yet, as the number of daily new cases keeps growing, accelerating, we are still far from any flattening of our curve.

This kind of violence against medical staff is not unique to Pakistan either, but we seem to be the only ones too paralyzed to act. Earlier in April, a hospital in Paris hired bodyguards to escort medical staff to and from their subway stations/ cars as incidents of violence, harassment, and verbal abuse directed at medical staff were seen increasing amid Covid-19. French hospitals even advised medical staff to refrain from wearing their uniform in public spaces during commutes to avoid getting noticed.

In neighbouring India, doctors and community health workers (eg those involved in community tracing and tracking) have been spat at, thrown stones at, abused and beaten up for reasons ranging from fear that doctors may spread Covid-19, to angry relatives of patients lashing out at hospital staff, for fear of being stigmatized if diagnosed. The issue became serious enough for India to amend its emergency epidemic law to make attacks on healthcare workers punishable by up to seven years in prison.

From mid-March to early May, Mexico had registered at least 44 cases of violence against its medical staff, including cases of beating and splashing abrasive liquids in the faces of medical staff. Attacks seemed to have been triggered because of rumors that doctors were responsible for spreading Covid-19.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently signed a joint declaration by global organizations representing more than 30 million healthcare professionals, decrying attacks on health workers amid pandemic. The declaration confirmed at least 208 such incidents from 13 countries since the beginning of the pandemic. It emphasized that actual numbers are higher and increasing every day.

Here at home, the government still seems to be far from acknowledging these difficulties, let alone doing anything to protect doctors. As of last week, family friends working at the “prestigious” Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) confided that they have to buy their own facemasks for use at work, because PIMS is not providing enough.

This crisis is a time to get mad, but not at the medical staff putting their lives on the line for a reckless populace. This is a time to ask ourselves, why it is that we have so few hospitals, why we have so few doctors / nurses / beds per capita. If you are not satisfied with the quality of medical professionals our medical colleges produce, it is because we invest so little in education in general and producing medical professionals in particular.

We are once again seeing the results of years of under-investing in health and education. Don’t get mad at medical professionals doing their best to save people’s lives. Demand better investments by your representatives.

Email: [email protected]