Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shrinking Life Expectancy in Pakistan

Dr. Umar Khan
Dr. Khan heads a Lahore based Think Tank

The Shrinking Life Expectancy in Pakistan

Life expectancy in Pakistan is shrinking according to a recently released report of PMA, the most respected medical association. It has gone down from 63 to 60 years. It was low from international standards to begin with now the spread has widened as the rest of the world has improved while we regressed. Unfortunately this regressive trend in Human Resource Development is all too obvious as a bit earlier UNESCO came out with a report including Pakistan in the 34 least literate countries. At the time of partition of India and creation of Pakistan, this area was the most educated in the world after Europe and the Americas. After gaining independence we were supposed to improve the life of our people but we could not even match the imperialist power which we rightly label as exploiter, in caring for our people. The question arises if the imperialist Britons were exploiters, what are we doing to our people? These dubious distinctions came with reports of successful experiment of state of art missile called Babar showing our erroneous priorities and its results. The pathetic state of education and health in Pakistan mutes all our achievements whether in the fields of sports or arms.

The report focuses on hepatitis endemics that are so prevalent along with high infant and maternal mortality rates. Although we don’t have any scientific figures available about hepatitis but the educated guess is that annual deaths due to this disease runs in tens of thousands. In the civilized world this would have resulted in a crisis situation attracting massive response from the state and enormous resources would have been diverted to check its spread but not here in Pakistan. Our people don’t seem to be important to our government. It may be because most of the victims of these fatal diseases are from the lower classes. Let me remind here that Bird Flu which caused lot of concern and response from the world claimed around 100 human victims. Whichever way we look at the reasons one point stands out, and that is the scarcity of resources allocated towards education and health.

It is time we realize the root cause of most of our problems lies in our wrong priorities and negligence of the health and education. In this world you get what you pay for and we are spending the least on education and health. Our average expense on education is less than 2% of GDP whereas on health it is even worse. The average third world spending on education nears 8% whereas the first world spends 18%. Israel the small nation surrounded by many hostile countries spends over 22% on education despite being in a state of war since its creation. No wonder it has grown stronger than all its enemies combined. Our lack of spending here is very obvious. We just have to see the condition of our schools and hospitals in the government sector or maybe the socio economic status of our teachers and health workers to comprehend the gravity of situation.

No matter which national problem we investigate we find its roots in our near criminal negligence of health and education. Whether it is religious extremism, lack of tolerance, poverty or Sardari system, all germinate from this weakness. There is consensus among the economists that the most rewarding investment is always in health and education (human resources) but we are still ignoring it. This leaves us with the painful prospect that because we are not investing in our future generations even our future is not as bright as our successive governments want us to believe. No sustainable economic, scientific or social growth occurs in societies with massive illiteracy and disease. Surprisingly we save on prevention but are ready to spend heavily after the crisis has happened like fighting extremists creating fyrther problems for ourselves and others.

In modern welfare states health and education is the states responsibility towards its people. Philanthropic and private effort does help but no nation ever achieved universal health or education without government taking the main responsibility. Lately whether we see new cancer or other hospitals or even schools, they are always in the philanthropic or private sectors. It is certainly admirable for the philanthropists but embarrassing for the state as it makes the rights of the people a privilege. 125 years back the British built Mayo hospital in Lahore when it had a population of 1 lakh whereas now that it is over 7 million. According to those standards it should have had 70 such hospitals just to keep up with the increasing demands but everyone knows the reality. Forty years ago people could reasonably expect to be treated in government hospitals without charge and would desire to get admitted in the government schools whereas now it has become unimaginable. Surprisingly we are repeatedly reminded in this context about the scarce resources of the government but surprisingly this scarcity does not show itself while buying flashy cars or spending on bureaucracy and the record breaking cabinet. Any state that cannot educate its people or provide them with health facilities loses much of its utility and reason for existence.

Pakistan is the only country in the world with worsening education and health figures. It is about time we accept this very troublesome fact as all the available evidence is substantiating it. These worrying reports should be taken as timely alarms as we can still correct ourselves and avoid the imminent problems. If we want ourselves and our future generations to live in this world with dignity we must start investing in the future of our children. We must start accepting the reality that we have ignored our people and increase the budget of health and education many fold bringing it at par with the rest of the world. Consider declaring a national emergency and divert all our resources including monetary and human, towards this effort making sure that within 15 years we have over 90% literacy and getting rid of the communicable diseases. Nations like Nicaragua and Cuba have done this successfully along with a few Indian states and so can we. Expensive TV and hoardings campaigns glamorizing personalities out of education budget must be stopped. Let us appreciate the fact that our most important asset is our 140 million population and not any minerals or arms. We must invest in our people and give them the opportunity to take Pakistan to the heights it belongs. An illiterate person who also happens to be sick cannot be a good citizen for the country or the world. Let us do a favor to ourselves and the world and invest in our people.

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