In the middle of a rugged swath on the edge of Thar desert, a state-of-the-art hospital treats more than 250 patients daily free of cost.
With weathered faces and attired in traditional garments, a group of women, some holding infants, were waiting to be seen as two female doctors checked on patients in the corner of a sprawling hall.
Located in remote Mithi, one of two towns where Hindus make up half the population, the 60-bed hospital is not a government facility but was established by the Al-Khidmat Foundation, a local charity.
The foundation also runs a nationwide chain of charity hospitals and is one of several key charities in Pakistan. It shares a significant burden in terms of food, health, education and other services which otherwise are meant to be provided by the government.
The hospital, which mainly focuses on female and pediatric health care, was planned in 2014 after the deaths of hundreds of children in the Thar desert region due to drought, and when malnutrition hit global headlines.
In addition to long distances, there are more structural issues that have contributed to the extraordinary number of deaths.
“We decided to set up a modern hospital in this remote area with the help of philanthropists to cater to hundreds of villages located deep inside the desert that have been badly affected by the drought,” Aijazullah Khan, an official of the Al-Khidmat Foundation stated.Â
The only government-run hospital in the area, Khan said, does not have proper laboratory and pharmacy services.
Almost 75% of the lives, he observed, could have been saved if malnourished children were taken to the hospital in time, diagnosed and required medical facilities were available.
“Apart from general checkups, all kinds of tests, pharmacy, and even operations are totally free of cost,” he said, adding that the hospital also conducts 100 eye surgeries every month.
The availability of doctors at the state-run hospital, Khan acknowledged, has improved in recent years due to strict government actions.
The southern Thar region, also known as the Tharparkar district, comprises six towns and spans more than 22,000 square kilometers (8,500 miles) with a population of 1.5 million.
Agriculture and livestock, which heavily depend on monsoon rains, are key sources of income for Tharis — a term uses to designate residents.
Apart from the hospital, the Al-Khidmat Foundation has dug scores of tube wells across the desert to provide potable water to residents, who otherwise relied on rainwater.
The Dua Foundation, a Karachi-based charity group, launched an agro-farms project to make use of subsoil water for the cultivation of different crops throughout the year.
According to Dr. Faiyaz Alam, the foundationâ€™s general secretary, 28 farms have been set up in different parts of Thar, making 250 acres of barren land arable and cultivable, where peasants are growing wheat, cotton, mustard, onions and different types of fodder for their livestock.
Pakistan is among a handful of countries that contribute more than 1% of their GDP to charity, according to a report by Stanford Social Innovation Review — a magazine that looks into cross-sector solutions to global problems.
The contributions push it into the ranks of far wealthier countries like the UK and Canada that contribute 1.3%, and 1.2%, respectively. It is about twice what India gives to those in need as a percentage of its GDP.
Pakistanis give around 240 billion Pakistani rupees (nearly $1.5 billion) annually to charity, according to a study conducted by Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy.
Around 98% of Pakistanis, the report indicates, give in some way — if not cash, with in-kind donations or volunteering for needy causes.
Local charities have contributed immensely, mainly in terms of cooked food and rations during coronavirus lockdown restrictions across Pakistan.
The Edhi Foundation, a relief agency founded by the internationally-acclaimed social worker, Abdul Sattar Edhi, was the first NGO that imported coronavirus testing kits and provided them to the government and charity hospitals in remote areas, in addition to distributing rations to needy families.
The charity, which runs a nationwide ambulance service, made a bulk of its ambulances available to transport suspected virus patients to hospitals and quarantine centers.
A network of charity hospitals in Pakistan is currently treating 350,000 patients every month.
Located in a low-income eastern outskirt of the port city of Karachi, Indus Hospital — the largest campus of the chain — caters to more than 2,500 deprived patients every day, free of cost.
From primary health care to cardiac surgery and even the treatment for challenging ailments like pediatric cancers are available for free in the network of hospitals, established by a group of doctors led by Dr. Abdul Bari Khan in 2007.
Saylani Welfare, another nationwide charity, introduced a mobile phone application and telephone service where needy families can register to get rations and other essential items.
Also, volunteers from the Alamgir Welfare Trust, Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA) — a nationwide group of professional doctors — Baitul Salam Trust, and other NGOs are still assisting the government in tackling the economic and medical needs of hundreds of thousands of needy people, especially those who have gone jobless due to the pandemic.
PIMA has set up an online facility to guide and assist suspected coronavirus patients.
In addition to local charities, Turkeyâ€™s Recep Tayyip Erdogan Trust is also running a chain of hospitals and blood centers which are operated by Indus Hospital.
The chain comprises seven hospitals — five in Lahore and one each in Multan and Muzaffargarh districts.
The 400-bed Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital Trust in the Muzaffargarh district, located 380 kilometers (236 miles) from Lahore, was gifted in 2014.
The hospital provides free health care to patients, irrespective of their background.
The trust has also been running two blood banks one each in Multan and Bahawalpur districts.