Ailing hospitals

Balochistan is the only province in Pakistan which does not have a health minister. Even though a health department does exist, it is being covertly run by Taliban commander cum disqualified health-minister, Qari Hamdullah of the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). No one has been appointed to the health department since Hamdullah’s disqualification who continues to run the department unofficially.

Hamdullah was disqualified by the Balochistan High Court on a petition for not having fulfilled the conditions for contesting elections. The decision was first stayed by the Supreme Court which later upheld the BHC verdict.

So, Hamdullah cannot be nominated officially even by the chief minister. And so the health facilities and hospitals trundle along without anyone to take responsibility for them.

For a government that already complains that its budget for health is inadequate, it is interesting how it now wants a fifty percent share in the running of a new UAE-sponsored hospital. The Sheikh Zaid Bin Sultan Hospital, Quetta, which the UAE constructed in 1995 as a gesture of goodwill to extend better healthcare facilities to the people of Balochistan, is the latest bone of contention between the centre and the province; indeed, while the hospital was completed 11 years ago, it could not start functioning because of the tussle between the two governments.

Initially, when the UAE government expressed its desire to construct the hospital with the help of the provincial government, the offer was politely turned down by Quetta, which considered the project financially unsound for a government already low on resources. The UAE royal family then went to the federal government. Now, the Balochistan government, while grumbling about the inadequacy of the Rs450 million it gets to spend on existing hospitals, is also demanding that Islamabad share the running of the UAE hospital with the provincial government.

Observers see this as another chance for the Balochistan government to appoint incompetent doctors and generally indulge in corruption and usurpation of money meant for the common Baloch; this is how a Bolan Medical College professor explains the provincial government’s ‘sudden’ interest in the new hospital.

Opposition parties also view the provincial government’s demand sceptically. They doubt the government’s intentions and maintain that the fate of Sheikh Zaid Hospital, if handed over to the “careless and irresponsible [provincial] government which does not even feel the need to appoint a health minister”, will be worse than the existing hospitals in Quetta.

For the UAE hospital, the federal government advertised the posts for doctors and other positions in newspapers and approved spending Rs950 million for modern medical equipment. It then floated the tenders and made other allocations for the hospital’s running. But just when the federal government was ready to start operations, the Balochistan government wrote to Islamabad saying that it wanted a fifty percent share in the hospital’s running. This proposal, considering Balochistan’s past performance in the health department, surprised many.

“The provincial government is already unable to meet the administrative costs and is often seeking bank overdrafts to run the administration; how will it manage running this huge hospital?” asks Jan Mohammad Buleidai, an opposition MPA. Buleidai points out the deplorable condition of the UAE-sponsored hospitals in Dalbandin, Kharan and Basima areas “where doctors are operating the OPD [Out Patient Department] only”. The modern facilities bought for these hospitals are hardly put to use for lack of human and other resources. Why then does the provincial government want to take another hospital under its wing?

On November 7, 2006, opposition and government MPAs from different parties tabled an adjournment motion on the floor of the Balochistan Assembly that sought a debate over the hospital and questioned the move of the provincial government to share expenses with the federal government. Treasury benches did not oppose the adjournment motion and suggested that it should be converted into a Resolution, obviously sparing the government fiery attacks on the floor of the Assembly. Since there was no quorum, the motion could not be discussed.

“The UAE-sponsored hospital should completely remain under the control of the federal government which will provide necessary medical equipment and appoint staff purely on merit so that the hospital benefits patients,” the adjournment motion demanded.

Medical professionals in Balochistan are also not very pleased with the intentions of the Balochistan government based on its past record. “If the federal government runs the hospital, more qualified doctors will come to Balochistan and we will also get qualified professors for our medical college in Quetta,” says one expert. Another adds: “There is no justification for why the provincial government wants to share the expenses of the hospital. Rather than fight to take charge of another hospital, the Balochistan government should improve its image by extending better healthcare facilities to the people in remote areas, especially in the existing hospitals.”

Although the UAE-sponsored Dalbandin hospital is well equipped, the provincial government has failed to send qualified staff to run the hospital. “The people of Balochistan want these hospitals to be run by the federal government in order to ensure better health facilities, transparency and elimination of political involvement in health-related matters,” demands Chakar Kashani, a 4th year MBBS student at Quetta’s Bolan Medical College.

“The provision of health facilities to the people of the country’s least developed province is not a priority of the provincial government,” says one nationalist. An observer adds: “Not having a health minister to administer health-related issues could be part of the trouble but it is not the whole problem which largely relates to corruption within the department itself. Running four major hospitals in Quetta [Bolan Medical Complex, Civil Hospital, Chest Hospital and Helper Hospital] is the provincial government’s responsibility but it has done nothing to improve health facilities in even one of these facilities.”

Located in the provincial capital, these hospitals are always crowded with patients from all over Balochistan. However, the provincial government’s lack of interest, which it describes as ‘lack of financial resources’, has made it impossible to provide patients with necessary facilities; there is a dearth of medicine and medical staff. Several patients die, less because of ailments and more due to lack of proper care.

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