Loss of a lesser life
ATHESE are the days when the mist envelopes the mind and the body has a more than usual craving for relief. That’s the time around Christmas every year when you fear that something is about to give. And routinely it does happen.
The country’s map is replete with entries of death by consumption of adulterated, bad liquor, or by taking in large doses of medicines meant to sooth sore throats, which invariably have some intoxicating agent as their base ingredient.
Winters are particularly prone to these ‘accidents’ but these deaths occur throughout the year. Only in November, when the weather was yet moderate, 19 men died in Lahore after consuming a cough syrup which, some officials maintained, they had spiked with another substance for the kick.
The case, known as the Shahdara cough syrup deaths, was in the news for a few days; yet it couldn’t quite get the hype or cause the outrage the enormity of the happening demanded.
Not any less highlighted was the official response which on the whole tended to point the finger at the consumers, to the instant relief of the suppliers and watchdogs.
The word ‘addict’ was repeatedly used in official and media reports, suggesting an irresponsible addict was less worthy of an effort at preventing harm to him than a responsible non-addict. This set the tone for the inquiry and the rest was all a tamasha for the consumption of the good, un-addicted souls out there.
Amid fanfare second in its tone only to the chief minister’s, the Lahore DCO came to a medicine factory in Shahdara, the city locality where the deaths by cough syrup had occurred. Recovered bottles of the cough syrup were waved proudly before the camera and the factory was sealed — for some time.
Soon afterwards Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif himself arrived on the scene to make his usual vows, with his associates using the media to make the standard but ill-timed and irritating claims about good governance in the province.
That was about all. The addict having been derided for his wrong choice of substance — from the wide variety he had at his disposal! — the government having made its promises and voiced its reassurances, the cough syrup case appeared to have been buried with the 19 bodies of the outcast nashais.
Chiefly they were responsible for bringing it upon themselves. Even the old lament which would mourn an individual’s journey to addiction, with all its social and economic detail, could not find space in the fast-moving narrative that had to accommodate so many other occurrences.
The inevitability of addicts succumbing to their fancy brew was hurriedly noted. The inevitability of the long, barren, unproductive dry spells that produced self-annihilating nashais stayed out of the discussion.
There were a few formalities that needed to be completed, though, and the cover lifted ever so slightly. A report prepared by the Punjab health secretary for the perusal of the chief minister appeared to dismiss the theory about the likelihood of the ‘addicts’ in Shahdara having added some other substance to their cough syrup.
It placed the blame on Dextromethorphan, according to Wikipedia, an antitussive (cough suppressant) drug.
Not only that, the secretary suggested probing the raw material that had gone into the making of the syrup. His report said the material used in the manufacturing of the syrup consumed by the victims in Shadara and then in Gujranwala had been imported from China and India.
It was to be used for making cough syrup in Punjab as well as other parts of the country, indicating a dangerous spread that required prompt action.
That was a tough proposition in a country whose various units were still unable to bring in an effective setup for drug regulation in the wake of an amendment to the constitution that transferred the health sector to the provinces.
The process towards that system was delayed despite the fact that a drugadulteration case taking many lives in Lahore some months ago had gravely emphasised the need for one.
That system is being sorely missed and as no political party has shown any inclination to protest the rampaging murders by cough syrup, long-held suspicions about the pharmaceutical lobby’s influence and the powers of drug manufacturers to work largely unmonitored are strengthened.
Lahore was considered to be the chief beneficiary of Mr Sharif’s good governance. Deaths by adulterated drugs at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology brutally dispelled that impression.
Shahdara added to the insecurity, and the deaths up the GT Road in nearby Gujranwala, which has had its share of political attention from the chief minister, can only be responded to with anger. There were many deaths in Toba Tek Singh as well, vindicating concerns about the possible expanse of the threat.
The link between Shahdara and Gujranwala, as damningly established in the Punjab health secretary’s report on the cough syrup deaths, is an indictment of the Punjab government. Clearly and criminally, the government was unable to move fast enough to avert a repeat following the loss of so many lives in Shahdara.
The negligence not only led to another tragedy, it led to a bigger, wider tragedy with the toll in Gujranwala and TT Singh according to some reports going into the 40s.
If one was needed, Shahdara should have been a sufficient reminder for the administration to look and find out why people were buying hundreds of bottles of certain brands of cough syrups, and their spurious namesakes, out of the many freely available.
In Shahdara the bottles the condemned addicts bought carried the same brand name, yet the price varied between Rs42 and only Rs19. Go out in Lahore today and even cheaper options guaranteeing a new-year high are freely available.
Pending a change in the official and societal view of the addict, pending a real campaign against poison masquerading as cough syrup, many more lives are at risk.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.