Medical practitioners in Pakistan have raised alarm bells over a wave of kidnappings targeting doctors and medics across the country. According to a report in Dawn, an English language Pakistani daily, the situation has become so grave that the Sindh chapter of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) has condemned the government for failing to clamp down on these abductions. Other medical groups have threatened to resign en masse in protest of their colleagues’ disappearances.
Earlier this month in the Korangi neighborhood of Karachi (the capital of Sindh), masked gunmen kidnapped Dr. Farrukh Abbasi from a private healthcare facility. “Such incidents are outrageous and are alarmingly on the rise,” Dr. Samrina Hashmi, PMA-Sindh chapter president, said in a statement, adding that such kidnappings have become a “profitable business” for criminals. “Professional people find no way out, but to run away from here because of rampant kidnappings and other heinous crimes against them,” she added.
The problem is perhaps even more pronounced in Quetta, the capital of the wild and lawless Baluchistan province. The Pakistani Daily Times reported that three months ago renowned heart specialist Dr. Abdul Munaaf Tareen and three other doctors were seized in Loralai, Baluchistan. Dr. Sultan Tareen, the president of PMA-Baluchistan, told a news conference in Quetta that over the past five years dozens doctors have been kidnapped for ransom, noting that a number of prominent local physicians and paramedics were released only after huge payments were made to the abductors. However, the local police and security forces have made no arrests in any of the incidents.
Sultan noted that Munaaf’s abduction took place near the headquarters of the provincial security forces – in an area where transportation is tightly controlled and monitored. “Our fight isn’t against any political party or group. We are fighting against the kidnappers and all doctor organizations are united in this struggle,” Sultan said. “The provincial government has ensured stringent security there but unfortunately no such measures have been adopted for hospitals.”
As a symbolic protest, Tareen had called for daily three-hour “strikes” by local doctors to express their anger. “The government must do something for the protection of doctors and shouldn’t compel us to stop all kind of work at government hospitals. If the administration doesn’t change its attitude, we do have other ways,” said a group of striking physicians in a statement.
In Baluchistan, a remote and impoverished region of Pakistan, the abduction of doctors exacerbate an already existing wave of bombings and criminality, sectarian killings, all compounded by a crushing shortage of qualified medical professionals. "How can we serve people and practice our profession [amidst all] this lawlessness?" Dr. Naqeeb Ullah Achakzai asked BBC. "We are not safe. We want security from the government."
Earlier this year, Dr. Ghulam Rasool, chief of psychiatry at Bolan Medical College in Quetta, was grabbed by six armed men in a crowded part of town. "Everyone looked on, but no one dared do anything," Rasool told BBC. Afterwards he was blindfolded and driven hours away to a secret location. He was freed more than two weeks later after his family paid a large ransom. "The ransom money my family had to arrange was big enough that nine months later, we are still paying for it," he said. "Because we are educated but weak members of this tribal society, we are seen as wealthy professionals and therefore have become a soft target for easy money…. I am still trying to get on with life. The only difference is I now have to carry private armed guards for my protection."
The Pakistan Tribune reported that some doctors may take the law into their own hands, or otherwise quit. Dr. Haqdad Tareen, chairman of a doctors’ steering committee in Quetta, told a news conference: “Doctors will establish a force for their security since the government is unable to take action against kidnappers and murderers. Second, doctors will jointly tender their resignations because they consider it better to stay alive rather than be victims of targeted killing and kidnapping.”
But some local doctors have simply decided it is best to leave than face such a dangerous environment – PMA estimates that over the past five years, 82 doctors from Baluchistan have fled to the Middle East and Europe. Suspicions are rampant that the local security forces are working hand in hand with the kidnappers, who pay them off and perhaps share in the spoils. Baluchistan is also facing a long-term insurgency by separatists -- a grim reality which gives security forces almost unlimited powers to abuse their authority.
Pakistan not only has a shortage of doctors, but spends an abysmally small proportion of its federal budget on health care --- meaning doctors depart the country for money as well. “Unfortunately public health is a neglected field in our country. More manpower and resources must be allocated to this sector,” Dr. Raja Amjad Mehmood of the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council said at a conference at the School of Public Health at the Dow University of Health Sciences in Karachi. Mehmood indicated that Pakistan’s total expenditures on health care amounted to 2.6 percent of GDP, while the public health sector received only 0.86 per cent of GDP.
Dr. Nadir Abbas, who is currently working in Wales, explained in an op-ed in the Tribune why he departed his native Pakistan. “We live in a country where 10,000 people are attended to by just one physician on average,” he wrote. “Fifteen thousand doctors leave the country every year." It is not surprising that the U.S., U.K. and now the Middle East have become the biggest importers of Pakistani doctors, Abbas noted, “with the latter [Gulf states] now even recognizing Pakistani doctors without any further examinations and giving them 20 times the amount of remuneration that they could have ever received in Pakistan.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.