Dawn Editorials 7th June 2023

Transgender healthcare

OUR social and political structures have sent the transgender population to Coventry. Anathema and misconception have never been in short supply. Yet another instance of exclusion occurred on Sunday, when Sindh’s health secretary and medical superintendent of Civil Hospital Karachi were sent notices by the Sindh High Court on a petition filed against the non-provision of treatment for HIV-positive trans persons. The three petitioners required urgent medical intervention, including hip replacement surgery, chronic kidney infection treatment, etc. But they were turned away by the hospital due to their HIV status — a gloomy reminder of a Peshawar trans person in 2016, who was sentenced to a life at a garbage dump after being diagnosed as HIV positive.

While healthcare is a fundamental right globally, in Pakistan, the trans community battles multiple barriers to access it. Uneducated, jobless and abandoned, they are often forced into sex work, drug peddling, human trafficking and begging. These livelihoods make them vulnerable to exploitation and sexually transmitted diseases. A shift in societal sanctions may be decades away, therefore the government must look at short-term measures to ensure well-being. Hospital staff must be sensitised and educated about trans people, their identity and special medical needs; they must be given separate wards and have access to free HIV testing. If addressing susceptibility, stigma and inequity is not a goal, we will end up treading water. And an HIV upsurge is not a risk worth taking. For this reason, a vital measure that assures welfare is the recognition of a third gender, visible in the population count to guarantee right to protection, employment, healthcare and education. Although it’s hard to be precise about transgender numbers in Pakistan, the recent digital census reveals a near 35pc fall in their population in Sindh. It defies reason that this community has shrunk in the midst of a population explosion. We hope this is an oversight and not a trans health alert.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2023

Reimagining airports

AIRPORTS across the world have transformed themselves. No longer are they mere hubs for air travel; they now offer facilities where passengers can avail a plethora of amenities and activities as they wait to board their flights. But in Pakistan, we have yet to master the basics of passenger-centric airport management. This was the crux of the briefing the Civil Aviation Administration’s managing director gave the Senate’s Standing Committee on Aviation on Monday. According to the CAA head, representatives of various agencies deputed at airports, particularly Customs, the Airport Security Force and Anti-Narcotics Force, were involved in harassing, threatening and shaking down passengers. He said such an “aggressive atmosphere” made it feel “as if we live in a cantonment”. While people’s personal accounts about the unprofessional activities of officials posted at airports abound, the state needs to take notice when the head of the aviation regulator brings up these issues in a Senate briefing. Some senators shared their own experiences of run-ins with unfriendly airport officials.

Indeed, grim-faced immigration officers, Customs officials looking to make an extra buck under the table, and unfriendly security staffers do not exactly present a welcoming picture to travellers local and foreign. Moreover, the multiple layers of security and often harsh questions from airport officials give the feel of a police state, where passengers, incoming or outgoing, have to ‘prove’ their innocence before these unwelcoming state representatives. Whether it is local travellers, expats returning to visit family, or the foreign tourist brave enough to make the trip to Pakistan, all travellers need to be provided a welcoming and professional atmosphere at our aviation hubs. While the transport of illegal and dangerous items cannot be allowed, and officials should keep an eye out for those travelling on fake documents, these cannot be excuses for treating ordinary travellers as suspects, or worse, extorting money from nervous ones. A greeting accompanied by a smile can go a long way in projecting a ‘soft’ national image, as opposed to the scowling, probing faces that currently meet passengers. Moreover, the CAA must also work on revamping infrastructure at Pakistan’s airports to improve the passenger experience. Perhaps privatisation of airport facilities can help bring positive changes in management, while those running aviation-related security agencies need to inculcate a culture of respect for the passenger within their personnel.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2023

Rinse and repeat

PAKISTAN’S Groundhog Day politics continue without missing a beat. Despite the same pattern having persisted for decades, where the victor today is the vanquished tomorrow, and so on in an endless loop, the civilian leadership appears incapable of resisting the urge to gloat over its opponents’ misfortunes. They happily settle for short-term gains, despite knowing how ephemeral their own ‘favoured status’ may be.

At a by-election rally in Muzaffarabad on Monday, PML-N senior vice president Maryam Nawaz took aim at the embattled PTI chairman Imran Khan several times during her speech.

She said that he who had claimed he would make PML-N cry was himself shedding tears hiding in his “bunker”. Referring to the rioting and arson on May 9, she also questioned Mr Khan’s patriotic credentials, adding: “We will make him an example.”

Ms Nawaz knows only too well how her own father, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was made an ‘example’ of each time he was removed from power, most recently through a questionable judicial process that led to him being disqualified from holding public office for life.

He was also erased from national media and silenced. Now it is the turn of the PTI leader to be sent to purgatory, and the PML-N leadership is content with being in the ascendant, although history attests to the precariousness of such a position.

When Mr Khan was in power, his government went after the then political opposition with a vengeance, riding roughshod over due process and other fundamental rights. Those in the cross hairs at the time had little recourse, and how could they? There was no level playing field; all the instruments of state were arrayed against them. The PTI finds itself in a similar position today.

However, if the PML-N is displaying short-sighted glee at the latter’s fall from grace, then PTI leaders too have had no epiphany about how the politics of vengeance plays out, about who loses and who gains in the larger scheme of things.

A few days ago, PTI leader Hammad Azhar said that his party’s offer for negotiations was intended for the “real decision-makers” and not “puppets”. Several times after Mr Khan’s government was ousted, he lamented that he did not have complete liberty to run the country.

“Our hands were tied … Power wasn’t with us,” he said on one occasion. If the strings of the PTI government too were being pulled from elsewhere, then all the more reason for the marionettes to speak to each other and thrash out another charter of democracy to succeed the one signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in May 2006.

That would ensure a level playing field for all political parties and renew the democratic process so unfortunately impaired in the last few years.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2023

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