KARACHI: It was an early morning in the month of April 2020 when I received a call from an unidentified number and when attended it, the caller introduced himself as Dr Faisal Sultan, Prime Minister’s focal person on Covid-19, who wanted me to go through a scientific article in the reputed British Medical Journal (BMJ) before discussing some health-related issues.
“Waqar, this is Dr. Faisal Sultan, PM’s the focal person on COVID-19. SAPM Dr. Zafar Mirza has shown me your news report on increasing number of people being brought dead to Karachi’s hospitals. I have sent you the link of an article in the BMJ, which has also appeared today and it has also described mysterious deaths of people with coronavirus infection, who had no symptoms of respiratory illness. I want you to first go through this article and then we can talk,” Dr. Faisal Sultan said and hung up. I opened the link of the BMJ’s article, which was about outcome of autopsies of a few dozen people who had died after getting infected with the coronavirus in Germany but they had no classical symptoms of the viral disease. Authors of the scientific article in the BMJ claimed that the deaths happened due to ‘deep vein thrombosis’ or blood clots in their legs, arguing that coronavirus was also responsible for clotting of blood in the vascular system. When I called him back, Dr. Faisal Sultan asked me if the hospitals in Karachi were conducting autopsies of people being brought dead. We also discussed how differently coronavirus was behaving in different people, its capability to kill people without involving their lungs, causing strokes and pulmonary embolism, etc.
This was my first interaction with one of the most learned and qualified infectious diseases experts in Pakistan, who later replaced Dr. Zafar Mirza, another highly qualified and trained public health expert, as Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health. I soon learnt that he is an Abdalian, an alumnus of Cadet College Hasanabdal, who did his MBBS from King Edward Medical College Lahore and later got trained in internal medicine at the University of Connecticut in 1992 and in infectious diseases from Washington University School of Medicine in 1995. He was serving as the Chief Executive Officer of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, Lahore, when he was appointed as the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Covid-19 in Pakistan and later as the SAPM in August 2020.
During his tenure as SAPM on Health, Dr. Faisal commanded Pakistan’s war against Covid-19 very effectively, provided technical assistance to the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), managed to arrange Covid-19 vaccines through COVAX, China, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, put in place an extremely vigilant and effective system where vaccines were administered in a disciplined manner initially to all the healthcare providers as well as elderly people and then to the remaining population of Pakistan.
I used to interact with Dr Faisal Sultan regularly during the pandemic, learnt a lot from him on infectious diseases, available and emerging treatments of viral and bacterial diseases, variants of Covid-19, concept of herd immunity, how vaccines work, use of messenger RNA technology, burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases in Pakistan and to the rest of the world, difficulties being faced in treatment of cancers in Pakistan and many other issues in the healthcare sector. The most admiring thing about Dr Faisal Sultan was that despite being part of the ‘most controversial government in the history of Pakistan’, he remained apolitical throughout his tenure as SAPM, never indulged in dirty politics, and perhaps that was the reason he was never targeted by any opposition party. As an expert on healthcare issues, Dr Faisal Sultan was treated as a respect official by the provincial governments and their health ministers in the country.
As soon as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) led government announced the name of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) MNA Abdul Qadir Patel as the Federal Health Minister for National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHS,R&C), the people on the social media started comparing him with highly trained and qualified Dr. Faisal Sultan.
“The only relation of Abdul Qadir Patel with healthcare is that he is a co-accused in case with Dr. Asim Hussain for harboring and getting terrorists, mostly Lyari gangsters treated at Ziauddin Hospital”, says senior judicial reporter, Jamal Khurshid.
As the newly sworn-in federal health minister has no training and experience of working in the healthcare sector, many people in the country’s healthcare sector are extremely concerned about his appointment as health minister but maybe he has some hidden talent through which he could prove his critics wrong. “Let’s see how he deals with the National Health Services. It is now a policymaking ministry with limited resources so it is not very attractive position for politicians. Most probably he would quit soon”, an official in the federal bureaucracy said.
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