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EVEN at the best of times, it is not easy to access quality public healthcare in Sindh. Since the past few months, conditions have become more lamentable still. The Grand Health Alliance, which represents different bodies of healthcare providers, has been protesting since October against the discontinuation of the risk allowance that was being given to them during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, OPD services at government hospitals and crucial health campaigns have been severely disrupted. On Monday, Lady Health Workers boycotted the five-day anti-polio vaccination drive aimed at 340,000 children under five in several districts of Sindh. Although NGO personnel were hired in their stead, the disruption meant that only 40pc of the target demographic was covered. OPD staff at a number of public sector hospitals, including in Karachi, that are usually thronging with patients, also went on strike for two hours. Hapless patients — many of whom travel long distances to reach tertiary care health institutions in urban centres — were left waiting with infants and small children in the bitter cold under the open sky.
The stand-off has gone on for too long. Both the government and the healthcare providers must meet halfway, because the intransigence on both sides is causing intolerable hardship for the public. There is merit in the government’s argument that the risk allowance, tied as it was to the pandemic, is no longer justifiable. However, legitimate demands by healthcare providers with reference to their remuneration, promotions, service structure, etc must be addressed, and done so with the intention of resolving the imbroglio rather than papering over the sticking points. This is a critical year in terms of health. Pakistan’s disease burden has risen significantly because of the floods. Also, Pakistan is believed to be tantalisingly close to turning the corner in its battle to eradicate polio. Our health apparatus needs to be firing on all cylinders, rather than be limping along even more than usual.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2023