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Daily Times Editorials – 27th February 2016

Public health at risk

The confiscation of nearly 2,000 kilogrammes of unhygienic meat from an illegal slaughterhouse situated near the motorway toll plaza in Islamabad has raised concerns about the safety of public health, which is constantly at risk at the hands dishonest people. In a separate incident, the Islamabad administration seized a vehicle carrying a huge quantity of dead animal meat that was on its way from Jhang to Islamabad. Reportedly, dead animals brought from various cities are slaughtered and then sold at various shops in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It is a terrible practice and citizens are the ultimate sufferers of this criminal activity going on unabated all over the country. Reportedly, dead animals or those of no more use and discarded by farmers in rural areas are purchased at very low cost by criminal butchers who then bring them to their illegal slaughterhouses and market this unhealthy meat. News appears regularly about the detection of cases related to the illegal trade of dead animals.
The most disturbing fact is that no serious efforts are being made to stop this illegal business. Butchers get clearance for supplying this unwholesome meat to markets by greasing the palms of concerned officials and veterinary doctors. The networks of this illegal business mainly consist of suppliers (butchers), dishonest personnel from the concerned authorities and buyers. It is the responsibility of all the concerned authorities like the livestock department, food authority, city district government and the police to clamp down on these networks. Instead, there is no coordination among these departments. That is why such business is flourishing. More tragically, the dead meat is sold to restaurants, food stalls and hotels, so the managements of these food outlets are equally involved in this crime. The meat of dead animals poses serious health hazards to citizens by spreading various diseases. The government needs to wake up and take solid steps to stop this illegal business. There is a need to issue licences to butchers after their registration. Strict action should be taken against illegal slaughterhouses. The police and other relevant authorities need to check the transportation of animals dead or alive, which are mostly brought from rural areas to big cities. Furthermore, the government needs to introduce an effective monitoring system to check the quality of raw food available in the market. Proper rules and regulations and their implementation are necessary to save people from catching deadly diseases due to the consumption of unhygienic food.

Tragic suicide

A few days ago, the country was jolted by the tragic suicide of a 17-year-old intermediate student named Saqiba Kakar from Muslim Bagh town of Killa Saifullah, Balochistan. The alleged reason behind her taking such drastic action was the refusal of her college principal, Abida Ghous, to accept Saqiba’s admission for the upcoming Intermediate examinations. According to the girl’s brother, the principal bore a grudge against Saqiba since Saqiba was a passionate student who had led a student campaign against the college administration in order to register a protest about the deteriorating standards of the institution. Therefore, the principal expunged Saqiba’s attendance and made it impossible for her to appear in the examination, even though by all accounts the girl was a brilliant and committed student who cared about her studies deeply. Thus, driven to desperation and unable to cope with the stress caused by her principal’s vindictive actions, a teenager took her own life. The extraordinary nature of this case captured headlines and drew a sympathetic response nationwide, as it interweaves a host of issues afflicting our society, including deplorable education standards, the struggle for women’s rights, receding democratic rights of freedom of expression, lack of awareness regarding mental health issues, institutional apathy to individuals and the status of Balochistan. Immediately after the news surfaced, Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri formed a committee to investigate the factors that had led to the death of the student and suspended the college principal and a clerk of the education department. But many feared that would be the end of the story and it would be allowed to peter out of public consciousness.
Thankfully, however, the sustained public outrage around Saqiba’s suicide drove the powers that be into action. A protest demanding justice for the deceased girl was held outside the Balochistan High Court (BHC), which was initiated by Saqiba’s family but was also attended by workers of different political parties, and a petition was also filed at the court which framed the issue in terms of freedom of expression. Soon after, the BHC ordered the registration of a First Information Report (FIR) against the principal and a clerk of the college. A judge of the court also questioned the provincial home secretary about the delay in constituting a judicial commission for a formal inquiry into the incident. It is important that the case is taken to its logical end and a thorough, transparent inquiry must be conducted into the matter. Saqiba Kakar’s death represents too many unfortunate realities about Pakistan that need to be redressed. Education is already a neglected sector, to say nothing of the status of female education in a deprived province like Balochistan. And then to see such a callous environment, which extinguishes hope of uncommonly passionate students, prevalent in the few institutions that do exist, is a heartbreaking reality that needs to end.

Medical welfare

Back in December of last year, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif launched the PM’s National Health Programme (NHP), designed to provide free healthcare to the underprivileged of Pakistan at both public and private hospitals. As per the NHP, families that earn less than Rs 200 per day will be provided with health insurance cards that will enable them to get free treatment from designated hospitals. The cards will cover treatments costing up to Rs 50,000 for common illnesses like the flu, fever or hepatitis, and set aside Rs 300,000 (with room to be extended to Rs 600,000) for more serious ailments and treatments like heart problems, dialysis or cancer treatment. Furthermore, it was stressed at its launch ceremony that the NHP would be regulated to ensure that medical staff does not treat NHP cardholders with discrimination. This clarification was required because the bedside manner of Pakistani medical professionals is notoriously poor and fears that without such measures poor patients opting for government issued insurance would be mistreated are not without merit. As many hospitals, both public and private, lack essential facilities to effectively treat many serious illnesses covered under the NHP, they have been encouraged to apply for low-interest loans so they can satisfy the basic requirements for being part of the NHP. The realisation of the NHP has been hailed as a much needed and highly welcome initiative by the government. However, though it is intended to eventually be a nationwide project, currently it is in its pilot stage and, so far, only 23 districts across Pakistan will be covered. Another inhibiting factor has been the opting out of Sindh and Khyber Pakthunkhwa from the NHP, leaving only Punjab, Balochistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) as the beneficiary regions. Accordingly, after the inauguration in Islamabad, the PM has launched the NHP in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) now. Addressing the ceremony, the PM said the scheme was a dream come true, as the provision of quality healthcare to those who cannot afford it was part of his party’s manifesto and dubbed serving the masses a “sacred duty”. He declared that all those who received their health cards would be able to benefit from the services immediately. The NHP will be initially available in two districts of AJK: Muzaffarabad and Kotli. However, the PM added that soon the entire AJK would be covered by NHP. In any case, within just Muzaffarabad and Kotli 82,362 and 79,004 households respectively are set to be beneficiaries of the scheme — this translates to more than one million individuals and for a pilot project this is pretty impressive coverage.
The opting out of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, however, remains a point of worry, as making this initiative a victim of political parties’ rivalries will only hurt the poor people of Pakistan. Ostensibly, this is because the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government claims it is set to launch its own health insurance scheme so it does not need another programme. However, this excuse does not carry much weight since both programmes are not mutually exclusive. If the provinces get further assistance from the federal government in addition to their own healthcare plans, the only upshot is increased health coverage and benefit to the people. In no world is that an outcome to be scorned at. It is commendable that the federal government has belatedly realised the importance of welfare projects and has taken a break from building roads and bridges to focus on healthcare. However, it must be noted that for a considerable while, the NHP will only benefit small pockets across the country while the rest of the people continue to suffer from inadequate healthcare delivery. A lot more needs to be done to improve conditions and infrastructure of healthcare and hospitals nationwide, so that the NHP can feed off that. Government hospitals especially lie in dilapidated states with shoddy infrastructure and facilities. Staff is ill-trained, over worked and paid ridiculously low wages, and life-saving machines and modern facilities are a pipedream. The NHP can only work if the people who use the cards have the right kind of healthcare to look forward to.
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