A real-life story that argues for waqf to play its desired role in curbing price anomalies and profiteering opportunities in the provision of essential services by introducing a fair benchmark in the market

These are unusual times indeed. One keeps hearing about the rising graph of people affected by the pandemic and the consequent huge pressure on health care facilities and professionals. Since March 2020, our small family comprising my spouse and two sons has been confined to the indoors. As good, responsible and scared citizens, we have suppressed every urge to move out into the open. We have been making all our purchases of essentials using e-commerce platforms without any complaints, even though we often ended up receiving the most rotten among vegetables. Fresh meat has been a dream. Hard to believe perhaps, we once received six guava plants against an order we placed based on the enticing pictures of the red and ripe guavas at the website! We tried to laugh it away. News items screaming about extraordinarily high returns for investors of such e-commerce companies were hardly reassuring.

As days rolled on, we realized that we can perhaps keep Covid-19 away with such precaution. However, the pandemic did not shut the doors to other kinds of ailments. There were instances of occasional fever, cold and what-have-you. For good reasons, we were advised, in case of health care issues, not to rush to clinics and hospitals. They would dissipate with some off-the-shelf medicines. Things were under control. However, we just did not anticipate that we would run out of options so soon. My son developed an ear infection which simply refused to subside even after two weeks of medication. We decided to act. Still reluctant to visit the hospitals, we searched for options. And there it was. An organization was providing precisely the service that we needed. A call would connect us to a consultant who listened to us and gave an indicative figure for the total cost of the service. There was no looking back for us. Another call would connect us to a doctor who gave a patient hearing about the ailment and offered to do the needful. The organization would send a general practitioner to our home along with the usual precautions (such as, personal protective gear) to examine my son. We were thankful. The doctor arrived at home and did the needful. She did an ear irrigation and prescribed an anti-fungal medicine. She was polite, committed and professional. We were much beholden to her. She would go back and send us the medicines along the papers and the bill, of course.

An hour later, my smartphone beeped. The message from the organization was clear. We had to transfer the amount of the bill to its bank account upon which the medicines along with documents giving the complete break-up of the cost of services would be delivered. The break-up was shocking. The cost of ear irrigation and medicines was reasonable. However, the cost of the service (calls, advice, home visit) was over 700 percent of the actual treatment costs. It did not matter as long as we got what we needed. We are much beholden to the service provider and more specifically, to the doctor who did the needful. Our son is recovering, MashaAllah.

Notwithstanding the happy-ending of this story, I find it hard not to think about the brothers and sisters for whom the billing amount is far higher than perhaps a month’s earnings. And what if the ailments were more severe? Does the patient or his/her family members have to wipe off their life-time savings or liquidate their assets if s/he is struck with a health issue? Should the prices of essential services be allowed to include abnormal profit margin? The mere consent of the buyer to avail the service does not make it a fair or ethical game.

I am reminded of the story of the Rumah well in Madinah where the people including Muslims and non-Muslims were finding it hard to pay the high price charged by the owner. Exhorted by the Prophet (peace be upon him) Othman purchased half of the user rights of the well and made a waqf of the same. Under the agreement he had the rights to draw water on alternate days. The people of Madinah would then draw water on these specific days, to the horror of the original owner. The loss of customers made him to sell the other half of user rights to Othman at a much lower price. The lesson from this incident is quite straightforward. For essential services like water (and health care and what-have-you) profiteering must be curbed. It can certainly be curbed through the government fixing prices. But a better option perhaps is to create awqaf that can provide the same service at a normal price. Once a benchmark price formation takes place, the market forces should eliminate any abnormal profit opportunities through overpricing in the midst of adversity.

A help-line for health care is usually and should be a not-for-profit business. It is similar to provision of drinking water which is a dire necessity and a consumer usually has no other option but to avail the service. A waqf driven by motive of benevolence and khidmah (service to humanity) can provide this service much more efficiently and effectively. It is certainly an SoS call to which the captains of the awqaf sector must respond.

About the Author Mohammed Obaidullah

Dr. Mohammed Obaidullah is an economist based in Jakarta, Indonesia

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