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EDITORIAL: The prime minister’s had his hands sod full with the no-confidence motion that he’s not even held the weekly cabinet meeting for about a month now. So there’s precious little chance of the letter written to him by the Pakistan Young Pharmacists’ Association (PYPA), warning about an artificial shortage of paracetamol to make space for a much more expensive variant, taking too much of his time anytime soon.

Yet it’s a matter of very grave concern that the supply of an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, used by a very large bulk of the population for things like fever, pain relief, etc., is being allegedly doctored. It turns out that the 500mg paracetamol tablet, which went from Re0.90 to Rs1.70 per tablet in price over the last four years, is disappearing from the shelf. And slowly people are being forced to switch to the 650mg variant, which goes for as high as Rs5.68 per tablet.

Since all this happened in the time of the pandemic, when medicine shortages were easier to justify than in peace time, it does have the makings of the textbook swindle engineered from the inside. That would explain why the mechanism already in place to check just such things missed it.

If PYPA’s concerns are really genuine, then failing the PM’s personal intervention the people’s medical needs will be exploited to make a few players in the supply chain very rich all over again. The letter quite clearly alleged that raising the price of the said medicine by just Re0.01 per tablet would rake in a windfall in excess of Rs50 million and one expects the PYPA to get the math right before submitting a very serious complaint to the PM and here we’re talking about an extra Rs4 per tablet for only 165mg extra.

That’s not all. High dosage of paracetamol, which goes under various brand names has been banned in most European countries, and 650mg requires a prescription in Australia, because of increasing cases of what is called paracetamol poisoning. So, if the claim is true, then it’s not just old-fashioned daylight robbery, it’s also a naked attack on the lives and wellbeing of people of Pakistan for pure monetary gain. And nothing requires the state to put its foot down and bring all its weight to bear down on market manipulators quite like such situations. At the very least, a thorough inquiry is urgently needed. It would be a shame if such plans succeeded just because the entire government machinery was gripped by the no-confidence motion almost as soon as key players were finally able to take their eyes off the Covid ball.

This development has come at a very important time because it should remind everybody that it is for the people, at the end of the day, that government exists, not for some circus where one group or some groups of rich and powerful lock horns with others just like them, and the one able to subvert the system the best shares the spoils with so-called coalition partners. One reason the present government suffers from a crisis of confidence, like almost every other before it, is that nobody ever puts the interests of the people above the interests of their politics. And ‘Naya Pakistan’, so far, has not been an exception.

PYPA’s letter really gives the PM the chance to take two wickets with one ball — do the right thing and also score PR points. Mysterious, unexplained, uninvestigated and very artificial rise in medicine prices is already a charge that dogs the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government. So this would be a nice place to start. But just what place this matter takes on the PM’s priority list remains to be seen, of course.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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