LAHORE: A shortage of protective wear in Pakistan’s Punjab province is imperiling medical workers in their fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, potentially putting their lives at risk to protect others.
“This is criminal negligence,” said Dr. Nauman Hussain Chaudhry, who has been treating COVID-19 patients in Dera Ghazi Khan, southern Punjab.
“Only the doctors who are working in shifts in the quarantined areas are fully equipped. Others, like the doctors on visiting rounds, nurses and the janitorial staff, have been given basic face masks and a pair of gloves,” he told Arab News.
He warned that members of the medical and non-medical teams serving patients are being exposed to the virus and could become carriers.
The nurses and janitorial staff work on day shifts, which means they return home every evening to their families. “Can you imagine? They could be spreading the disease, and no one is testing them,” said Chaudhry, who is also the president of the Young Doctors Association (YDA) in Dera Ghazi Khan. Working 12-hour shifts, the personnel have no specific procedures to protect them from contracting the illness, he said.
Punjab has to date confirmed 96 cases of coronavirus, of which 55 are in Dera Ghazi Khan. The rise in cases has been driven by 800 pilgrims who arrived in the city last week from Iran. Several of them tested positive for the virus.
Not only are the medical teams in Dera Ghazi Khan unprotected, but they are also understaffed. Only 10 nurses have been looking after the quarantined pilgrims.
To raise awareness and to highlight the Punjab government’s neglect, Chaudhry and his colleagues have been regularly posting videos on social media. In a video shared with Arab News, Irfan Haider, who recently returned from Iran and has been quarantined with his two small children, says he is being kept in a large hall with 15-20 other people, not in separate, isolated wards.
Other images show disposable protective gear being washed and dried out in the open.
Expecting the medical staff to pass around protection gear is “insulting,” Chaudhry said. Every day, he said he fears he could get infected, but abandoning patients at this critical hour is not an option. “We do what we have to do, in whatever circumstances.”
There is no official data on the number of health care providers who have been infected.
In Punjab’s capital city Lahore, where 15 infections have been confirmed, the facilities are comparatively better. Three public hospitals have been designated to treat coronavirus patients: Mayo, Services Hospital and Pakistan Kidney and Liver Institute. Each has nearly a thousand protective equipment kits, according to YDA Punjab.
“Doctors working with patients in isolation wards are fully equipped,” Dr. Salman Haseeb Chaudhry, the president of YDA Punjab, said. “But the problem is that most of these confirmed cases are identified at emergency wards or the outpatient departments. None of those people has any protection.”
However, the Punjab government dismissed the doctors’ charges as “propaganda”. Musarrat Jamshed Cheema, the spokesperson of the provincial government, said that the “young doctors were doing politics.” “We cannot afford to put our doctors and nurses in danger.”
Last month, the Punjab government distributed 25,000 protective suits, while another 50,000 will be imported in the coming days, she said. As for testing the medical staff in direct contact with the infected, Cheema said that testing would be done as was needed. “If we keep testing doctors daily, we will run out of kits for patients.”