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EDITORIAL: HRCP’s (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s) call for making the right to health a fundamental part of the constitution is appreciated, especially after the Covid pandemic exposed the health sector’s vulnerabilities and, more recently, the UN (United Nations) warned of a ‘nutrition crisis’ in the country.

It is strange, though, that nobody in government gave this matter any thought for more than seven decades and it took so long for human rights campaigners as well to lobby for healthcare to be taken seriously enough to be included in the constitution.

As rightly pointed out at the national roundtable where this proposition was debated, international law sees health as an independent right, which in turn depends on the provision of other rights including right to food, water, sanitation and a healthy environment.

As often mentioned in this space, most Pakistanis begin to encounter serious health problems right at birth, given that it is one of the most densely populated countries, and also with one of the highest poverty rates in the whole world.

This is a lethal combination, which is often responsible for lack of proper medical outlets, lack of proper awareness and, especially, lack of proper nourishment in expecting, malnourished mothers.

That’s why a lot of children are born weak and/or stunted. And since there aren’t nearly enough hospitals and medical facilities, a lot of these children either don’t get to grow up at all or grow up into weak individuals. And this cycle goes on.

The primary reason, as rightly identified at the HRCP roundtable, is that nobody in government ever thought this was serious enough an issue to be made a fundamental right and part and parcel of the constitution of the land.

Pakistan’s political elite loves to wave the constitution whenever their own rights are curtailed or they feel pressured for political reasons.

Therefore, there is a lot of sense in the proposition that medical needs of people in a country with many problems be given constitutional cover and healthcare be recognised as a fundamental right just like the right to life itself.

Yet, as also cautioned during the debate, introducing constitutional amendments, when not pushed by extremely powerful quarters, is often a long, difficult and drawn out process. And at a time when it cannot be said for sure even if elections are going to be held, or which party is likely to hold power or for how long, and an ugly political slugfest in the backdrop of an imminent default is all the rage, it’s difficult to imagine that issues like health can even find their way on the table.

Nevertheless, HRCP has made a very important point by highlighting something so crucial. Not just that healthcare needs the same kind of attention as people’s other inalienable rights that are a fundamental part of the constitution, but also that something this important never occurred to the people and institutions that have run this state since its inception.

No wonder, then, that primary health is still so low on the priority lists of governments and administrations at all levels. In some cases – also mentioned in the debate – the poorest segments of society are forced into crippling loans, and eventually slavery and bonded labour, just because they had no other way of addressing serious health issues in their families.

This is an appalling situation. And the remedy lies only with the state. Hopefully, people at the top can look away from their own selfish lust for power long enough to give some of people’s most pressing issues a little concern. And institutions like HRCP can guide them well.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

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