Miles to go before they sleep
It's a long walk to justice.
The journey went unnoticed, uncared for and through all sorts of obstacles over more than two decades. In the end, three owner-officials from a notorious pharmaceutical company were jailed on July 22 for literally killing dozens of children with its toxic paracetamol syrup.
Only 10 years in jail for killing at least 76 children! Is the justice just? No punishment is possibly just for a crime like this. And no parents will be able to forgive anyone for making a lethal medicine that is used widely and with not an iota of doubt. Yet, this verdict will go down in the history of our healthcare as a landmark one.
Why is that?
Medicine is made through utmost care, thorough research and extensive tests as it deals with life. There is no scope to make a mistake. That is the practice in the civilised world. The story here in Bangladesh is sadly different. More often than not, we see on TVs and read in newspapers about fake, adulterated and low-quality medicine flooding the market. But never before was a maker of spurious drugs convicted.
The judgment will, from now on, hold out hopes to the population of 160 million that toxic drug-makers are not beyond law. These criminals will now keep it in mind that they can't escape the law anymore, even if they find officials of the country's drug administration as their partners in crime.
The punishment is indeed way too soft, but it is also the maximum under the law. When the law was framed during the British rule, no policymakers possibly thought of the decades ahead when unscrupulous drug companies would be manufacturing medicine not to heal, but to kill people. This verdict should wake up our present day policymakers to reality for making the law as tough as possible so that none dares to put public health at risk. No less than the maximum punishment is right for crime of this nature.
This particular case dealt with one pharmaceutical company and 76 unfortunate children. But four other companies, toxic paracetamol of which had led to the death of over 2,700 children in 10 years from 1982, managed to manipulate legal system and stay beyond law.
What if it had happened in a country that cares the least for people's health? The deaths would have kicked up a huge public uproar, bringing the government to its knees. If not death, owners would have been serving life term in jail, with mass trot litigators squeezing billions of dollars out of these pharmaceuticals as compensation for families of the victims. Our law does not have any provision for compensation and lawyers lack conviction in safeguarding people's most fundamental rights. This verdict should serve a rude awakening to our parliament and judiciary.
Despite the downside, there is a lot to cheer about. It shows how commitment of an individual or institution to a cause makes a world of difference against all odds.
Prof Mohammed Hanif first came to experience the tragedy of hundreds of children dying from kidney failures in 1982, when he started his career as a resident doctor in the then PG Hospital. Every day, patients were being admitted with both kidney failures and fever, and despite being treated with dialysis, were still dying. He could link the two -- death and toxic syrup -- together. Then a young paediatrician, Hanif failed to make anyone listen to his concerns. Desperate, he sent specimen to a US laboratory on his own initiative and could establish the fatal link eventually.
Litigations followed his shocking disclosure, but it failed to make any ripples among the authorities concerned. Frequent higher court stays kept those cases coming to trial. The case documents even disappeared from the courts. Thankfully, for a lower court, one case reopened following an investigative report by The Daily Star.
The government as well as the judiciary must come forward now to seize the initiative. The two vital organs of the state must show that they care for people.
The long walk to justice is not over yet. After the lower court, there come higher court, appellate division and review provision. It may take years, decades for justice to complete the full legal circle.
Families of the 2,700 victims still have miles to go before they sleep.