Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Hospitals as Sites of Conflict in Pakistan

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In the coming blog posts, we will be highlighting new articles from our June 2016 issue, which you can access in full here. The theme of this special issue is The Clinic in Crisis: Medicine and Politics in the Context of Social Upheaval. This week, we will overview Emma Varley’s article “Abandonments, Solidarities and Logics of Care: Hospitals as Sites of Sectarian Conflict in Gilgit-Baltistan.” Read the full article here.


As our past blog highlights have suggested, the clinical space can both act as a site of political protest and serve to facilitate political unity. Varley’s article expands upon these themes by arguing that the clinic can also become a microcosm of inter-group tensions, wherein the hospital itself relays a picture of broader social conflict. Through her analysis of a crisis in a Pakistani hospital, Varley ethnographically demonstrates how Sunni-Shia conflicts manifest in the clinic, and how these tensions are navigated by health professionals employed there.

Varley recounts a shooting and raid which occurred at a hospital in Gilgit-Baltistan in January 2005. Shia gunmen had entered the regional hospital to hunt down Sunni male patients, aiming to retaliate after the assassination of a Shia leader killed by Sunnis. One women’s health ward, operated by nurses of the neutral Ismaili group, was left untouched after the nurses hid Sunni male patients. The nurses protected the men by insisting to the gunmen that there would be no male patients on a female ward: drawing both upon their social role as neutral Ismaili and their gendered role as caregivers of women, who were seen as uninvolved in the conflict at hand. Meanwhile, in a surgical theatre, physicians pretended as if the assassinated Shia leader on their operating table was still alive: hoping to placate the gunmen who threatened them until police or military forces could arrive to dispel the violence. Orderlies and other guards on the wards had, in some cases, fled: leaving clinical staff to defend or otherwise conceal the Sunni patients, and in other cases, fellow Sunni providers.

In reflecting on this incident, Varley notes that the hospital became an example of an “abandoned” space, one in which the necessary governmental protections and securities were not in place to ensure the safety of all patients and clinicians. The onus of protecting patients fell upon the clinicians who staffed the hospital: illustrating both the selflessness of individuals in assisting one another across oppositional group divides, and the potential for hospitals to become sites of medical and political refuge. This increased the trust between Shia providers and their Sunni colleagues in medicine. Conversely, the incident intensified professional divisions between Shia and Sunni providers, as Sunni clinicians later departed the larger regional hospital and took up employment in new Sunni health centers where they felt less at risk.

Though Varley reminds us that conflict is “corrosive” within medical professional relationships, it may also enable “renewed” feelings of trust between caregivers of opposing groups when political unrest unites them under a common aim. In sum, the hospital may serve a site of caregiving exchanges that expand beyond the bounds of medical encounters, as it becomes a sites of political action and negotiation between social groups.

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One thought on “Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Hospitals as Sites of Conflict in Pakistan

  1. Pingback: Special Issue 2016: The Clinic in Crisis | Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

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