Doctors forced to combat coronavirus without PPE, salaries, food

Updated April 03, 2020

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"We haven’t received our stipends for the last three months". — AFP/File
"We haven’t received our stipends for the last three months". — AFP/File

KARACHI: House officers and postgraduate trainees, the front-line force battling the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, are forced to work at several hospitals without personal protective equipment (PPE), stipends and, in many cases, food, it emerged on Thursday.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, doctors told Dawn that they were facing a lot of problems at work, severely affecting their mental health as well as the quality of their work.

The worst affected health facilities include the government hospitals in Sukkur and Larkana, the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital (ASH) and the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC) in Karachi and the two teaching hospitals, one in Hyderabad and the other in Jamshoro, attached with the Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMHS).

“We haven’t received our stipends for the last three months. The issue has been brought to the knowledge of the administration multiple times, but to no avail,” said a house officer posted at ASH.

The batch of around 250 house officers at ASH had also closed down the outpatient departments in protest sometime back, she added.

‘We haven’t received our stipends for the last three months’

She also complained that though the government had officially increased their stipend from Rs30,000 to Rs45,000 in February last year through a notification, medical students of the Karachi Medical and Dental College (the educational institution attached with ASH) were forced to agree to lower the stipend amount at the time of their induction last year.

“We were threatened that if we didn’t agree to this amount, the hospital administration would induct medical students from other colleges as house officers,” she said, adding that the hospital had not yet cleared dues of the batch which had left the facility and were now working as postgraduate trainees at other facilities.

Asked about the PPE, she said not a single doctor had been provided gear by the hospital. “We got some from non-governmental organisations. These days, we are holding filter clinics instead of OPDs. Of the 500 to 1,000 patients who daily report at the hospital, some 50 are suspected of having the coronavirus and referred to government-designated hospitals.”

Another doctor, a postgraduate trainee at ASH, said that while they had been getting their stipends regularly for some months, the administration had not paid their eight-month dues yet.

“The pending amount varies between 200,000 and 600,000 depending on the time of one’s induction,” she said.

Sources said both house officers and postgraduate trainees at the JPMC had not been paid stipends for the last three months and the previous batch had not received their arrears.

No food

Similar situation prevails at LUMHS hospitals located in Hyderabad and Jamshoro where doctors have not been paid for months.

“We haven’t been paid for two months now. It has been like this since I joined as a postgraduate trainee last year. But what’s more critical right now is to work without food and tea for hours,” a doctor complained, explaining that while some of his colleagues brought food from home, that was not possible for everyone.

All restaurants were closed due to the lockdown and the hospital administration prepared food only for in-house patients, he said.

“Some of us are working in the quarantine. How could you ensure quality work with an empty stomach?” he said.

Seconding these concerns, Dr Umer Sultan, representing the Young Doctors Association-Sindh, said that postgraduate trainees in the districts of Sukkur and Larkana had not been paid stipends for 13 months.

“The health department says the amount has been released. If this is true, why it hasn’t been paid to the doctors yet? There should be an inquiry into the issue,” he said, adding that house officers had not been paid stipends for six months in Nawabshah district.

He agreed to the demand that the government must ensure supply of quality food to all healthcare workers.

On the availability of PPE, he said: “It’s in short supply everywhere. Doctors at some private hospitals are being asked to buy the equipment from their own pocket. Unfair distribution of PPE is also causing a shortage and it’s the government’s responsibility to address the issue.”

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2020