Wealth, At The Expense Of Health

Adulterated medication and food items have become a common feature of life in Pakistan, which gives rise to a vicious cycle where a few profit immensely at the expense of the many.

Wealth, At The Expense Of Health

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” — J Krishnamurti


Just as a caring and sensible government considers the health of its citizens as extremely important, Pakistan too does not fall short, as evident from the mission statements on the websites of the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, and that of Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP). While the Ministry is committed to “helping the people of Pakistan to maintain and improve their health and to make our population among the healthier in the region,” DRAP’s mission is to “ensure that every drug, medical device or cosmetic, alternative medicine and health product must have a certain standard of quality and is safe and effective for use by the citizens.” Indisputably, these are most noble intentions expressed by both the Ministry and its related department.

Abhijeet Banerjee, Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says: “Good intentions and grand theories do not make a good program. Programs work best when they’re based on a detailed understanding of the problem and how they are implemented on the ground.” Intentions, especially sincere ones, must be accompanied by competence and ability to perform. A majority of the people, belonging to all walks of life, are well-intentioned in that they mean well, want to put in their best, show positive results, do their jobs efficiently, excel in their fields and generally be depicted as good human beings. The real test begins when they translate this intent into practice. Same holds true for governments as well. Merely putting up lofty words on websites is insufficient. What matters more, is delivery.

Importance of a healthy body, mind and nation cannot be disputed, so much so that what to talk of human beings, even the health of plants and animals is vital for the survival of this planet. After all, a sick entity can never compete with one that is exuberating with energy and it is this energy that keeps the wheels of life in perpetual motion. Thomas Carlyle, a renowned philosopher’s famous quote (although some have mentioned it as an Arabic proverb) is: “He who has health, has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.” In order to uphold one’s own and the public’s hope, collective positive efforts must be undertaken to maintain fitness for which, in the case of individuals there is much dependence on their economic condition but at the government level the responsibility is heavy, really heavy and must figure high up in priority. 

In September 2023, newspapers and social media carried a horrific post regarding the sub-standard Avastin injection and how administering it on diabetic patients in Lahore and Kasur, caused them to lose their eyesight. As it happens and how it happens, the government machinery sprang into action to investigate the incident, making sure to unearth and punish all those involved, cease the product and seal such premises where these illegalities were taking place. Since the caretaker government is in charge these days the present Chief Minister was quick to form a five-member committee to probe the matter from all angles.

It was reported that at least forty diabetic patients had fallen victim to blindness because of this injection. Perhaps this would not have hit the headlines if a politician’s own brother and friend had not been affected.

Unfortunately, our nation is left to suffer immensely as poor quality and adulterated food gives rise to a host of diseases that cannot be cured with impure and low potency drugs. This is essentially what gives rise to a vicious circle at the expense of the nation’s health  

Low-quality and sub-standard medicines have been circulating in the market since long. Way back in 2012, Tyno cough syrup took the toll of many people, mostly drug addicts that resulted in the shut-down of a pharmaceutical company and three drug stores. Should not this have been a wake-up call for the authorities who could have tightened their control to avoid a similar future occurrence?

The very fact that something of this nature has surfaced within ten years, speaks volumes about the apathy of our regulators. In the aftermath of the Avastin crisis, raid on a private hospital was conducted, following First Information Report (FIR) that was filed based on a complaint lodged by the Deputy Drug Controller, wherein the offenders known to be suppliers, could not be found. The FIR also mentioned that the defective injection was being manufactured illegally in addition to other illegal and unregistered drugs. Quite an interesting revelation!

For accumulating wealth, people can go to any extreme. In this particular case, eighty doses were being extracted from a single Avastin injection, which were being sold cheaply to primarily low-income individuals that in turn was churning out a whopping profit of Rs. 150,000 per injection.  Obviously, where there is blatant violation of laws and rules, it implies that corrupt elements hidden within the authorities are clearly in connivance with the perpetrators. These dark horses are ones who, instead of performing their duties, join hands with criminals only to increase their hidden wealth.

Medicines, especially those meant for critical ailments, should be regulated and manufactured with great diligence without even a wee bit of consideration or compromise. This policy should also be implemented for food items that are integral for the general health of the people. Unfortunately, on both counts, our nation is left to suffer immensely as poor quality and adulterated food gives rise to a host of diseases that cannot be cured with impure and low potency drugs. This is essentially what gives rise to a vicious circle at the expense of the nation’s health.  

According to the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung: “The healthy man does not torture others—generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers”. One wonders if these merchants of death had an abusive childhood or were victims of someone else’s mistreatment that they are bent upon playing havoc with others’ lives. On the other hand, one can only pray for the corrupt who want to thrive financially at the expense of their conscience and moral fabric of society.

As it is, there is hardly any concept of social welfare for handicaps and if more are added to their population what sort of communities would we be raising? How can a nation hope to progress and grow where we are more organized on the bases of disease, malnutrition, impure foods, corruption and such societal evils? What use is wealth if health is absent?

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)