Dr Zafrullah’s single life was equal to a number of lives of others, Dr Bijon Shil once wrote.
It was late March, 2020. Bangladesh had just declared a country-wide lockdown for ten days because Covid-19 cases were on the rise – so far four deaths and 39 infections were reported.
The pandemic’s epicentre was shifting from China to Italy, but infections were spiking all around the world regardless. The panic was palpable in Bangladesh.
It was during this time that I met Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury for the first time. Scheduling an interview with Zafrullah was easy – he was the sort of a man who always made time.
The interview was scheduled at Gonoshasthaya Nagar Hospital in Dhanmondi. However, I did not like my odds, because journalists from various media houses had already lined up, waiting on the good doctor who was in the middle of his kidney dialysis. I wasn’t sure how a person, right after going through a dialysis, would give an interview to any journalist, let alone an entire group of us waiting with lights and cameras.
But Zafrullah, always dressed in lungi and worn-out shirt, sitting on his wheelchair and attending all sorts of meetings, gatherings and protests, pulled through.
When we walked inside his hospital room, he was half-lying on the bed. He tried to compose himself after seeing us, and the interview began.
I was terrified.
I didn’t know how to ask questions to a person in such a state – especially after one of our colleagues from an online portal managed to annoy him with some inconsiderate questions.
Zafrulllah, in his weakened state, answered most of our questions.
“The doctors have to be courageous right now. They should not avoid an infected patient.
If doctors and nurses show fear, people will panic,” said the health expert. “The government should also aid the poor so they can maintain livelihoods at home.”
Speaking about courage in such desperate times was right on brand for the freedom fighter, who moved back to his motherland – leaving behind his FRCS studies in London – to fight the Pakistani forces.
He took part in guerilla warfare in the early stages of our Liberation War. Later, he established the first field hospital for freedom fighters and refugees at Melaghar.
Soon after Bangladesh’s independence, his work to rebuild a healthcare system began.
The Bangladesh Field Hospital had received objections from the government in 1972 regarding its name. The issue was settled through the intervention of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – Zafrullah’s “Mujib Bhai.” Together, they picked the hospital’s present name ‘Gonoshasthaya Kendra’.
On that day in Dhanmondi, the media was keen on interviewing the good doctor partly because he was a public health intellectual, and partly because they wanted to learn more about his Rapid Dot Blot Covid-19 testing kit project. “The conventional system will cost Tk 12,000 to Tk 13,000 to test a single patient, we will do it for Tk 250 if the government exempts us from tax and vat. And its efficiency and accuracy is very high,” he said to me.
The project did not take off, but you could see his dynamism, and his innate drive to help people – and that is what he did his entire life at Gonoshasthaya Kendra.
“Following the approval at 1:00 pm (Rapid Dot Blot’s approval by the government), we ran to the banks, because they ended their business hours by 2:00 pm on Thursdays. We managed to send money abroad. We are importing the raw materials from England,” he said.
Even half-lying on that bed, when he spoke of the project, his face would light up with excitement. Even while almost dozing off, a smile was plastered on his face. He said we should be very proud of Dr Bijon Kumar Sil for leading the project. The admiration for Dr Sil’s work the good doctor had was palpable. Dr Zafrullah’s drive was the catalyst that created the grounds for the pharmaceutical revolution that Bangladesh has experienced over years.
As chief advisor of the expert committee for Bangladesh’s national medicine policy in 1982, he was an instrumental figure in implementing a policy that laid the groundwork for increasing local production of medicines and improving its quality.
Dr Bijon Kumar Sil once wrote in an article that Dr Zafrullah’s single life was equal to a number of lives of others, and it was not possible to discuss his worth in a single column.
He had a voice that never feared to speak out. He lived a life of courage and honesty.
Four days after I met Dr Zafrullah, he tested positive with Covid-19. During a time when we secluded our elderly from the outside world to save them from the pandemic, Zafrullah pushed forward.
He refused to go abroad for treatment, instead he chose the hospital he built.
Dr Zafrullah passed away on 11 April 2023, at the age of 81.