KARACHI: It was early in the month of April 2020 when I received a call from an unknown number and the caller introduced himself as Dr Faisal Sultan, prime minister’s focal person on COVID-19, when I attended it.
Dr Faisal wanted me to go through a scientific article in the reputed British Medical Journal (BMJ) before discussing some health-related issues linked to my news report on increasing number of people being brought dead to Karachi’s hospitals.
“Waqar, this is Dr Faisal Sultan, PM’s focal person on COVID-19. SAPM Dr Zafar Mirza has shown me your news report. I have sent you the link of an article in the BMJ that emerged today […] it also discusses mysterious deaths of people infected with coronavirus, with no symptoms of respiratory illness. I want you to first go through this article and then we can talk,” he said and hung up.
I opened the link of the BMJ’s article, which was about outcome of autopsies of a few dozen people who had died after getting infected with coronavirus in Germany but they had no classical symptoms of the viral disease.
Authors of the scientific article in the BMJ claimed that the deaths happened due to “deep vein thrombosis” or blood clots in their legs, arguing that coronavirus was also responsible for clotting of blood in the vascular system.
When I called him back, Dr Faisal asked me if the hospitals in Karachi were conducting autopsies of people being brought dead. We also discussed how coronavirus behaved in different people, its capability to kill people without involving their lungs, causing strokes and pulmonary embolism, etc.
This was my first interaction with one of the most learned and qualified infectious diseases experts in Pakistan, who later replaced Dr Mirza — another highly qualified and trained public health expert — as special assistant to prime minister (SAPM) on health.
I soon learnt that Dr Faisal is an Abdalian — an alumnus of Cadet College Hasan Abdal — who did his MBBS from King Edward Medical College Lahore and got trained in internal medicine at the University of Connecticut in 1992 and later in infectious diseases from Washington University School of Medicine in 1995.
At the time of his appointment as the prime minister’s focal person on COVID-19 in Pakistan and later as the SAPM in August 2020, Dr Faisal served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, Lahore.
While serving as SAPM on Health, Dr Faisal commanded Pakistan’s war against COVID-19 very effectively, provided technical assistance to the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), managed to arrange COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, China, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. He also put in place an extremely vigilant and effective system where vaccines were administered in a disciplined manner initially to all the healthcare providers, elderly and then to the remaining population of Pakistan.
I used to interact with Dr Faisal on a regular basis during the pandemic, from which I learnt a lot from him on infectious diseases, available and emerging treatments of viral and bacterial diseases, variants of COVID-19, concept of herd immunity, how vaccines work, use of messenger RNA technology, burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases in Pakistan and to the rest of the world, difficulties being faced in treatment of cancers in Pakistan and many other issues in the healthcare sector.
The most admiring feature about Dr Faisal was that he remained apolitical throughout his tenure as SAPM, never indulged in dirty politics, despite being part of the “most controversial government in the history of Pakistan”. Perhaps that was the reason he was never targeted by any opposition party. Instead, Dr Faisal as an expert on healthcare issues, was treated as a respected official by the provincial governments and their health ministers in the country
‘Healthcare in Purana Pakistan’
As soon as Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)-led government announced the name of PPP’s MNA Abdul Qadir Patel as the federal minister for National Health Services and Regulations and Coordination (NHS,R&C), people on social media started comparing him with highly trained and qualified Dr Faisal Sultan.
“The only relation of Abdul Qadir Patel with healthcare is that he is a co-accused in case with Dr Asim Hussain for harbouring and getting terrorists, mostly Lyari gangsters treated at Ziauddin Hospital”, says senior judicial reporter Jamal Khurshid.
As the newly sworn-in federal health minister has no training and experience of working in the healthcare sector, many people in Pakistan’s healthcare sector are highly concerned about his appointment as health minister, but may be he has some hidden talent through which he could prove his critics wrong.
“Let’s see how he deals with the National Health Services. It is now a policy-making ministry with limited resources, so it is not a very attractive position for politicians. Most probably he would quit soon”, said an official in the federal bureaucracy.
Originally published in