Cancer and Pakistan

IAway from the maze of Pakistan’s civil, military elitist politics in Islamabad, I recently spent some three weeks at the Shaukat Khanum Hospital in Lahore for a complicated liver tumour surgery. Some complications confined me to the intensive care unit (ICU) most of the time. As doctors struggled to get me back on my feet again, the stint at the hospital exposed me to a situation I had never experienced before. It gave me some new perspectives on the lives of common Pakistanis.

The disconnect between what Shehbaz, Maryam, Bilawal and Zardari actually stand for and the alarming situation on ground is worth dissecting.

Firstly, since my ICU rooms kept changing because of the treatment requirements, it enabled me to figure out who was under treatment to my right and left; it was mostly poor people from far flung areas of Balochistan, Waziristan and even Afghanistan. From a four-year-old Afghan girl to middle aged cancer patients – all being treated free of cost, with equal care and no distinction of a commoner or VIP, cast or creed.

The paramedic staff hardly knew whether the patient was private (like myself) or from a financially poor background. This category – deserving of free treatment – constitutes nearly 80 per cent of the patients being treated at the hospital. And all this becomes possible because of the continuous flow of magnanimous donations from abroad and within the country. Fundraisers are another critical source of funding but at times opponents of Imran Khan have shamelessly blocked such events and even politicised this charity hospital.

And this brings me to the second aspect of my experience. The surgeon explained to me with the help of a couple of images how the klatskin tumour had ensnared the bile duct – a tube that carries bile from the liver and gallbladder, through the pancreas, and into the small intestine. The tumour had also choked half of the liver, which had to be removed.

After the doctor’s explanation, I couldn’t resist relating this tumor to Pakistan’s elites. A minuscule one-two per cent civil, military elites firmly hold the country’s critical resources in clutches the way the tumour had entangled part of my liver and blocked supply of critical bile to gallbladder and the intestine.

The brute elite capture has left little for the dominant majority of hapless Pakistanis, evident from the fact that insensitive ministers and pliant bureaucrats keep raising gas, electricity prices as and when the IMF demands so.

Hardly did any politician bother to speak about the 67 per cent back-breaking hike in gas tariffs.

These officials know where the problem lies i.e. theft and pilferage of gas and electricity but wouldn’t look for solutions there. It is easier to keep taxing the consumer.


Khawaja Asif, who once held the charge of the petroleum ministry, claims that stopping theft and plugging the leakages alone not only can fetch hundreds of additional billions but also free the sector of IMF conditions.

This relates to the third aspect of my exposure at the Shaukat Khanum Hospital: the nursing staff and their worrisome queries (since they knew my journalistic background). Almost everyone that I interacted with only had one question: is there any chance of the inflation winding down? The crippling price hike has made our lives miserable, is there any hope at all? One could discern their helplessness under the circumstances.

The repeated increases in utility tariffs also reflect the disconnect that exists between the cold-blooded decision-makers and those who are pushed into further adversity because of indifference and inefficiency within the government.

I must mention here that the exposure to three private hospitals within two months also put Shaukat Khanum on top as the best paymaster among the majority of private hospitals. But even this staff is struggling to stay afloat while taking care of their families.

Private hospitals by the way fleece all and sundry and this also reflects the civilian elites’ utter neglect of public health. By not expanding government facilities, the civilian elite has thrown common Pakistanis at the mercy of private hospitals which have become money-minting enterprise, with little accountability.

This is, for example, where the health card that the PTI had introduced made the difference in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa i.e. free access to critical treatment in the province.

After decades of thriving off a declining economy, is the civil, military elite amenable to the idea of universal health care for the common man? After witnessing the ‘silent revolution’, are they ready to massively correct blood-sucking, patronage-based economy? The answer lies in foregoing the architecture of obscene perks and privileges, contributing to expenditure reduction or are they waiting for a radical surgery that cancer demands?

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