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Pakistani Medical Workers Contract Coronavirus Amid Protective Equipment Shortages

FILE: Hospital staff pray before begging their work shift outside a hospital for coronavirus infected patients in the southwestern city of Quetta on March 26.
FILE: Hospital staff pray before begging their work shift outside a hospital for coronavirus infected patients in the southwestern city of Quetta on March 26.

Associations of doctors and nurses in Pakistan say that more than 150 healthcare workers in the country have contracted the coronavirus so far due to a lack of the equipment necessary to protect against infection.

These organizations are demanding better equipment and highlight the death of two doctors and two nurses who were killed by COVID-19, the disease caused by a coronavirus infection. In Pakistan, the virus has infected more that 6,000 people and killed over 100 hundred among its 210 million population.

As a hospital in central Pakistan emerges as a new hub of coronavirus infections, healthcare workers on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus pandemic are worried for their own safety. Earlier this month, doctors in the impoverished southwestern province of Balochistan endured police beatings and arrests to demand protective equipment and better working conditions as they treat suspected coronavirus-infected patients.

Fazle Rabbi, head of the Young Doctors Association (YDA) in Islamabad’s Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, says the Pakistani authorities failed to equip the doctors with necessary protective gear in time, which has endangered their safety.

“Doctors examining suspected coronavirus patients do not have enough N95 masks, goggles, gloves, or protective suits, while some of the locally manufactured safety kits do not meet international standards,” he told Radio Mashaal on April 14. “Wards dedicated for treating COVID-19 patients have been established inside existing hospitals, thus the doctors treating patients there continue to interact with their colleagues working in other parts of the hospital, which endangers everyone.”

At Nishtar Hospital in Multan, a city in central Pakistan, 27 doctors and paramedics in the hospital were confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. Multan is a major city in the eastern province of Punjab, the country’s most populous province, which had registered nearly 60 coronavirus cases among medical workers. As of April 14, the southern province of Sindh had registered 50 infections while the western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had 25 and 20 cases, respectively.

“I think the government needs to arrange disinfectants on a large scale so we can disinfect places with confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases,” said Amir Taj Khan, the head of YDA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “It is important to provide healthcare workers with masks, gloves, and other equipment.”

Khan says the six healthcare staff infected by the coronavirus in the region include the provincial head of public health and a couple more senior doctors.

But Zafar Mirza, a healthcare adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan, said they are doing their best to protect medical workers.

“We have provided personal protective equipment to frontline workers after making a list of the hospitals caring for the maximum number of coronavirus patients,” he told journalists on April 13. “We are also trying to teach them who among the staff needs to use specific protective equipment such as N95 masks.”

Mirza said Pakistan will soon begin producing personal protective gear. “Within weeks, we will be self-sufficient in producing all the personal protection equipment apart from the N95 masks,” he said. “Eventually we will be able to produce more than 100,000 N95 masks in Pakistan daily.”

He said the authorities in the country are adamant their strategy to contain the pandemic is working. “Certainly, the number of cases and deaths in Pakistan is lower compared with other countries, but that doesn’t mean we can throw caution to the wind,” he told reporters on April 15. A day earlier, the Pakistani government relaxed the nearly three-week-long lockdown, which had seen the closure of schools, businesses, industry, and a dramatic decrease in traffic.

But earlier this month the Pakistan Medical Association, another major organization advocating for physician rights, accused the authorities of neglect. "Politicians and bureaucrats are often seen wearing N95 masks during meetings and visits,” its statement noted. “[But] health professionals are facing a dire shortage of [these masks] and PPE [personal protective equipment]."

Such grievances led to noisy protests in the southwestern province of Balochistan. On April 6, police arrested dozens of doctors in the provincial capital, Quetta, after they protested the lack of protective gear. They ended their protest the next day after the military intervened and promised to supply doctors with the requested equipment.

Healthcare workers continue to complain that they have little support despite serving on the frontline of a global pandemic in a country where the true extent of coronavirus infections is difficult to ascertain because of the relatively low number of tests.

Shaista Jadoon, the head of nurses association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that in addition to lacking necessary protection equipment, her colleagues have not been coached on how to protect against the coronavirus. She says that some of the nurses quarantined after contracting the virus have received no assistance.

“While the nurses working in public hospitals are being paid, they are spending all their income on on treating themselves,” she told Radio Mashaal. “But those working in private hospitals are not even being paid.”

Some doctors have resorted to buying their own equipment. Khan Mehmood Waziri, a physician in Islamabad, says that he bought a personal protective kit from a local company.

“I am supposed to use this kit only once but I am compelled to use it repeatedly,” he told Radio Mashaal.