Jonathan Neale and Geoff Brown report on an inspiring struggle for the right to health care in Punjab, Pakistan
Some 200 doctors in Punjab state, Pakistan, went on hunger strike two weeks ago.
They took an oath to continue until death. Their demand? Free medical care for all in their state of 94 million people.
Their organisation? The Young Doctors Association. The economic crisis is hitting Pakistan very hard. People are dying.
Dr Aftab is a member of the Young Doctors Association.
“Every year about one million children die of preventable diseases,” he told Socialist Worker. “These include malaria, hepatitis A, influenza and pneumonia.
“About 50,000 young women die every year of preventable maternity complications. “Some 80 percent of live births are not attended by any qualified staff.
“Approximately 45 percent of children have stunted growth.”
This is why the doctors decided to fight for medical care for all. They slept in a hunger strike camp in the city of Lahore.
A week into the hunger strike, the police attacked and beat men and women brutally—live on local TV.
Seventy doctors were arrested.
But doctors and supporters occupied the streets around the jail and the prisoners were released.
More doctors joined the hunger strike.
On day 14 of the hunger strike, the doctors’ representatives met the chief minister—in effect, the prime minister of Punjab state.
They won. The strike was called off. They had not won everything. The chief minister may not keep his promises.
But they had won free medicines for all poor people.
And they had won free medical investigations and tests for all poor people.
This is an enormous victory. In a desperate economic situation, it was a fight for more.
No doctors anywhere in the world have done such a thing before. They fought for everyone. And they won because they were prepared to die.
Dr Aftab said that the doctors had not fought alone.
“The real support has come not from the political parties but from the workers,” he said.
“We’ve had huge support from the railway workers’ union, the clerks, teachers and paramedics associations.
“We are not able to register as a trade union and are not able to go on strike legally. But we and the government know we are a trade union.”
Dr Aftab explained how doctors were able to convince so many of their colleagues to risk their lives by going on hunger strike.
“Socialists founded the YDA,” he said. “They have been discussing the case for free health care with colleagues from the beginning.
“The association started with the demands of the doctors.
“But now the objective conditions are such that we are able to convince colleagues they should act on the demand for free health care.”
He added that doctors were challenging the corporate media “just as the British Medical Association was in its recent pensions action”.
“In raising this demand you can’t shut down the hospitals,” he said.
“We think the hunger strike is a way of breaking the government and the corporate media.”
Dr Aftab had a clear message for people in Britain—“Workers of the world unite”.