The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has expressed concerns over the standoff between the government and striking medical staff in the Punjab. Meanwhile, the strike has spread to the northwest.
The Young Doctors' Association (YDA), an organization of Pakistani medical workers, is demanding higher pays for medical staff and more allocation of money to state-run hospitals.
In the Punjab, Pakistan's most-populous province, the doctors' strike has entered third week. There are reports that at least 11 people have died due to lack of medical staff in public hospitals. Meanwhile, the police has arrested scores of striking doctors. The YDA has accused security forces of manhandling and torturing the doctors.
Pakistan's public health sector, which is the only source of medical provision to millions of Pakistanis who cannot afford private facilities, has been in a shambles. Consumer rights groups report widespread mismanagement in government-run hospitals, negligence on the part of medical staff, corruption, and insufficient medical facilities in hospitals.
The right to protest
Pakistan's public health sector is in a bad shape
Pakistan's non-government Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said on Monday that it was gravely concerned at the standoff between the doctors and the government.
“Some of the protesting doctors' demands may be justified, but the ongoing wrangling is symptomatic of the anarchy of thought and practice in the country where neither side is willing to abandon its stance for the sake of an amicable settlement. Both sides have shown no inclination to budge and have sought to achieve a stronger bargaining position by resorting to threats," HRCP said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Punjab government has called in the Pakistan Army doctors to temporarily work in place of striking doctors.
Dr. Riaz Ahmed, a Karachi-based activist, told DW that the doctors' demands were legitimate, and that the Punjab government backtracked on its promises.
"They (the doctors) have been protesting since 2008. Despite promises by Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab, 'service structure' notification was never issued to state hospitals, as ordered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Ahmed said.
Protests spread to other parts of Pakistan
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party governs the Punjab province
DW Peshawar correspondent Faridullah Khan said the strike had spread to various parts of the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which borders Afghanistan.
According to the Paramedical Association of Pakistan, around 8,000 doctors, 14,000 paramedical staff, 3,500 nurses, and hundreds of clerical staff are taking part in province-wide demonstrations.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government said it had accepted some of the doctors' demands that it found legitimate. The doctors should call off their strike now, said a government official.
The government vowed to deal with striking doctors strictly if they continued with their protests. The state health ministry also threatened doctors to go back to work lest they would be sacked.
Khan reported from Peshawar that the government wanted to impose a 1958 ‘service act' in the public health sector, which would take away the right to strike from doctors and other health workers.
The rights groups have criticized the civilian government for acting like military dictators in its use of force to curb doctors' protests.
Ahmed told DW that the central and provincial governments feared that the doctors' protest could spread to other state-run and privately-controlled social sectors. “Many Pakistani politicians own huge private hospitals and a misgoverned public health system suits their interests. That is why they don't want reforms in the health sector,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed also said that trade unions were planning protests in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi to show solidarity with striking doctors.
Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Sarah Berning