On the front line

April 08, 2020

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IN the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with over 4,000 confirmed cases in Pakistan, doctors and medical staff in Quetta clashed with the police, leading to the arrest of dozens of them. The reason: the non-availability of personal protective equipment and medical kits for healthcare workers in the province, which has resulted in several of them contracting the coronavirus. The president of the Young Doctors Association has warned that most services will not be provided until they are given the necessary equipment and tools to tackle the sudden upsurge in cases over the past few weeks. Meanwhile, the DG ISPR informed the media that essential supplies had been dispatched to Quetta.

In fact, the battle is a larger one. Healthcare workers across the country — indeed, the world — have been affected. Even in the UK, there are doctors and nurses who have threatened to quit due to the shortage of PPEs, reflecting the tremendous strain on them as they work long hours with limited resources to protect their infected patients, while exposing themselves to the infection. As evidence suggests, even asymptomatic patients can pass on the virus to others. As early as February, when the first coronavirus case was detected in Karachi, there were warnings about shortages of essential items in public and private hospitals across the country. In one report in this paper, a healthcare expert lamented that only 1,200 respirators were available at the National Institute of Health in Islamabad, when the country required a total of 110,000 respirator masks, and 300,000 gloves were needed against the 100,000 available. While help has been pouring in from governments and private donors, and China has donated medical supplies including masks to Pakistan, it is not clear if these have reached the people who need them most. In KP, one doctor covered his head and hands with plastic bags to register his protest. The government launched an inquiry against him, only to withdraw it after the KP health minister intervened. Most tragically, doctors, too, have died after being infected with the virus: Dr Osama Riaz from Gilgit-Baltistan, and Dr Abdul Qadir Soomro from Sindh. In his last video message, the bedridden Dr Riaz joined his palms together and pleaded that the virus be taken seriously. He struggled to speak throughout the recording.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many flaws in governance around the world, but perhaps nowhere is this most drastically felt than in the neglect of essential healthcare services. A mentally and physically exhausted workforce that is severely underequipped is simply going to lead to more situations like Quetta, and more tragic deaths, which can threaten to undermine whatever infrastructure is in place. After all, doctors are only human. It is impossible to win this war against the coronavirus without these brave front-line defenders showing up at work each day. We cannot afford to lose them.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2020