By Dr. Aziz Baig
There was a time when people used to call Gilgit-Baltistan the land of peace, love and happiness, but today a cloud of gloom hangs over the region.
Because of the recent wave of sectarian violence in Gilgit Baltistan, hundreds of people have died and the economy is on the verge of collapse. The education and healthcare sectors are among the worst hit.
As the government and the security agencies find out and address the causes of sectarian violence, there is also a need to revisit our current policies and reevaluate our current system of governance. Decent, acceptable and long-term coping strategies should be devised to address the grave issue of sectarian violence.
Being a health professional, I believe some of the most important challenges will be in the healthcare sector. The existing healthcare policies and strategies have not been developed professionally and scientifically. These ill-conceived, narrow minded and misguided policies are also essential contributing factors to the sectarian violence in Gilgit Baltistan. In an ideal world, hospitals are constructed to provide the highest quality of care to all people regardless of their faith. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals are committed to helping and assisting everyone everywhere irrespective of their sect, race and color. But the public healthcare resources in Gilgit Baltistan seem to have been divided along sectarian lines.
The District Headquarters Hospital (DHQ) in Gilgit is the oldest public hospital in Gilgit Baltistan and was built in a Shia dominated area more than 50 years ago. It served people from all across the region. People living in the vicinity of the hospital helped the poor patients and attendants coming from far off districts, often giving them food and clothing. Sometimes they also accommodated them in their houses. Shia and Sunni health professionals worked together and provided best possible services to the population despite of the scarce resources.
Today, things are different. Sunni patients are reluctant to visit the DHQ hospital. Even Sunni health professionals have declined to work in the hospital. Instead of pacifying tensions and finding a pragmatic solution to the issue, the government built another hospital in Kashrote, a Sunni dominated area, just three kilometers away. Sunni health professionals have been deployed to this new hospital and it largely serves the Sunni community.
At a distance of a few yards from the Kashrote City Hospital, the Aga Khan Health Services have also set up a well-equipped hospital. The hospital is neither located in an Ismaili dominated area nor meant to serve the Ismaili population only, but some people still assume that a good number of health professionals and majority of patients coming to this health facility are Ismailis.
Is there really a need for so many hospitals in Gilgit city? Are we not wasting our resources? Can’t we set up one large well-equipped hospital in Gilgit that can provide quality healthcare to everyone regardless of their faith? Will the sectarian based healthcare approach end violence in Gilgit Baltistan? On the contrary, it might deepen the sectarian rift. We cannot fulfill the dream of a pluralistic society by dividing our healthcare system along sectarian lines.