Towards a New Beginning

Author Name: Aneeqa Safdar      08 Apr 2020     Society

From the limitations imposed on gatherings to the curtailed movement of people, and from the closures of businesses to the lockdowns of entire nation-states, the novel coronavirus has hit the world hard. While we keep our fingers crossed that this pandemic will soon abate, without doing irreparable harm to societies, let’s not forget that it is a time of introspection. As to every end, there is a new beginning – let’s work towards ours.

 

Presently, when any risk mitigation strategy against the coronavirus pandemic requires sufficient hospital beds and sophisticated medical equipment in the form of ventilators, unfortunately, our country falls short on both accounts. While a contemplation point is as to why our industrial base, unlike the technologically advanced countries, remains unable to utilize the manufacturing units to produce ventilators on emergency basis - the scant capacity of our health system to provide basic healthcare in the first place, let alone deal with public health emergencies, remains a critical one.

 

Today, when even first world countries’ healthcare systems (the best-funded and most-equipped) have failed to cater to the public health emergency that this novel virus presents; a country like Pakistan, which did not meet its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on health, must ask: how can it cope with the situation effectively?

 

As per the Global Health Security (GHS) Index, Pakistan ranks a mere 105 out of 195 countries, with an average score of 35 out of 100 across the main metrics. Recently, the GHS Index team identified Pakistan as one of the most vulnerable countries to a global pandemic like COVID-19 on basis of predictions made using the GHS Index and global flight data.

 

Pakistan remains one of the few countries where endemics and epidemics like polio, malaria, dengue, HIV, and tuberculosis continue to wreak havoc even today. A study published by a leading medical journal in 2018, The Lancet, ranked Pakistan as 154th among 195 nations in terms of quality and accessibility of healthcare. This meant that the country lagged behind its South Asian counterparts Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and India. The study further mentioned that despite Pakistan having seen an improvement in its health infrastructure since the 1990s, it performed poorly in tackling diseases like Tuberculosis, Diarrhea, and Leukemia, among others.

 

The basic health indicators of Pakistan show the miserable state of the common masses and ultimately of the health infrastructure. Pakistan also has one of the highest rates of stunted growth in the world where 38 percent of Children of Pakistan have impaired development. Infant mortality rate too, with 61.2 deaths per 1,000 births, is highest in South Asia. Similarly, maternal mortality is also one of the highest, with the majority of the births still taking place at homes. The health facilities in Pakistan present an equally gloomy picture.

 

Although there has been a moderate increase in the number of health facilities since 2000, the population per bed has increased. Currently, there is one hospital bed available for 1,608 people. There is one doctor available for 963 persons, and one dentist for 9,413 persons. There also exists a stark rural-urban disparity in these facilities.

 

The rural health facilities face a persistent shortage of health professionals as they are not willing to work in far-flung rural areas because of the lack of suitable infrastructure. These basic health care units of the state lack basic medical equipment like X-Ray machines, let alone facilities of specialized care. Medication shortages compound the problem even more.

 

The state-run health institutions are also incapable of coping with the needs of the growing population. Take for example the case of federal capital Islamabad, where the existing system is immensely overburdened, as a population of 2.5 million only has two major public hospitals at its disposal.

 

A cursory look into them would reveal how poorly equipped they are to cater to the needs of the patients. Meanwhile, with a quarter of the population living below the poverty line, the costly nature of private health facilities also keeps it out of the reach of the common masses.

 

A key structural challenge that has halted the improvement of health infrastructure is insufficient health budget. While the World Health Organization’s Global Health Expenditure database shows Pakistan’s health expenditure to be 2.75% of GDP, a dismal figure in itself, Pakistan Economic Survey 2018-19 reveals that the spending on health has been less than one percent of GDP for decades. As the COVID-19 outbreak has testified, human health is the ultimate driver of the world. It has shown that citizen development and healthcare hold the utmost importance for any country’s survival. It is time we prioritize human health and development in our spending policies.

As they say, it is never too late to do the right thing, let the end of the COVID-19 pandemic bring a new beginning for us that is of an improved healthcare system and a welfare-driven state

 

The writer is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). This article was first published in regionaltimes newspaper.  She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.

Recent Articles