KARACHI: For Dr Shobha Luxmi, life has completely changed since she was appointed head of an isolation ward for coronavirus patients at the government-run Dow University of Health Sciences Hospital Karachi.
She is one of thousands of medical professionals at the forefront of Pakistan’s battle against the formidable coronavirus outbreak, which has left millions under lockdown in the South Asian state of over 200 million people.
The challenge is all the more greater given the country’s weak public health system.
Apart from the risk of contracting the virus from patients, doctors, nurses and other medical staff are also constantly dealing with a growing sense of anxiety and the exhaustion of their unending shifts.
Lack of safety precautions at state-run hospitals poses a threat to medical staff
“My life has turned upside down over these past few weeks. I have almost been working round the clock. I just get a few hours of sleep, and even then I am thinking about the hospital,” Luxmi, 40, an expert at the Dow University of Health Sciences, told Turkish news outlet Anadolu Agency.
She receives hundreds of calls and emails each day, in addition to attending meetings, monitoring screenings of suspected patients and treating patients who have tested positive.
Her hospital is receiving about 500 patients every day, at least 100 of whom are screened for Covid-19, and four to five are testing positive on a daily basis.
“Before this, I only had teaching and administrative duties. Now it seems the burden of the entire world is on my shoulders. I do not switch off my mobile phone for a minute because I know there may be an urgent call at any moment,” she said.
“I have had no time for my only daughter or her studies, my family, or my parents. My daughter has started complaining now; I have not cooked for her for over two weeks.”
D. Omer Sultan, 36, carefully donned his protective suit, face mask, gloves, and goggles in a changing room at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC) in Karachi, one of the country’s largest medical facilities, before entering an isolation ward to check on suspected Covid-19 patients.
“Things have totally changed after the coronavirus outbreak. We were never this careful about our own safety. It really has become a nerve-wracking job,” said Sultan, an office-bearer of the Young Doctors’ Association.
“This is not just my story. Every doctor, nurse, paramedic, and even the security guards, are risking their lives to save others.” He was full of praise for the nursing staff, especially women who make up around 70 per cent of the total strength, for being at the forefront of the battle against Covid-19.
“They have done a tremendous job. They have been away from their homes and families to serve the nation. I, as a doctor, feel that these women have done a greater job than any of the men in this profession.”
The dedication of these medical professionals is not lost on their fellow countrymen, as Pakistanis across the country will wave white flags from their rooftops and windows on March 27 to pay tribute to their selflessness and commitment.
“This is not a favour to anyone; this is our duty, and our time to serve our nation,” said Luxmi.
Concerns for safety
But a lack of proper equipment at many government-run hospitals in Pakistan has raised concerns for the safety of medical professionals.
Last week, a young doctor, Osama Riaz, died of Covid-19 in Gilgit-Baltistan, which borders neighbouring China.
He had contracted the virus while screening people who had returned from abroad, mainly pilgrims coming back from embattled Iran.
Two young doctors and a nurse deputed at quarantine wards in Lahore and Sukkur have also tested positive for Covid-19, according to Sultan.
“Safety precautions for doctors dealing with suspected patients are quite unsatisfactory. Only doctors deputed at isolation wards have proper personal protective equipment. Hundreds of doctors who are dealing with suspected patients are doing so without proper masks and gloves,” he said.
Luxmi endorsed his view and said there were legitimate concerns over the lack of safety measures.
“It is true that doctors and staff members are working without proper protection at several hospitals. But at our hospital, I do not let any doctor, nurse, or paramedic see any suspected patient without the complete safety gear,” she said.
The total number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan is now over 1,100 with eight confirmed deaths. Some 21 people have recovered.
The coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, last December and has now spread to at least 175 countries and territories. The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak a pandemic.
The number of confirmed cases worldwide has now surpassed 472,000, while the death toll is more than 21,300, and over 114,800 have recovered, according to data compiled by the US-based Johns Hopkins University.
Despite the rising number of cases, most who become infected suffer only mild symptoms and recover.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2020