CORONAVIRUS infections among hospital staff in the country have risen at an alarming rate.

According to data shared by the National Emergency Operation Centre on Thursday, almost 191 more healthcare providers tested positive for Covid-19 within a week — a 75pc jump from the previous week, taking the number of confirmed healthcare worker cases to almost 450.

Nearly a quarter of this staff was working in critical care units, whereas the majority was attending to patients in other wards of the hospital.

With the highest confirmed cases of health workers reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh are not too far behind.

While there is some relief that one-fifth of those infected have recovered, the situation remains serious as, since the end of February, at least nine medical professionals have succumbed to the virus.

The figures paint a grim picture. Each statistic for active cases of healthcare workers represents a doctor, nurse or other hospital staff member who is now in isolation, at home or quarantined in hospital.

Not only does this mean that there are less medical workers attending to patients, it is also a huge blow to the morale and mental health of the medical community.

These individuals, at great personal risk, don their masks and gloves every day to engage with confirmed Covid-19 patients and, at times, have to watch their patients die.

Though living through dread and fear, these heroes continue to show up and be the backbone of our healthcare system even as they face an epidemic of stress.

The government must do everything in its power to protect our healthcare workers. Priority must be given to manufacturing or procuring personal protective equipment; ramping up daily testing — which is still less than half of the targeted 25,000 — and training healthcare staff on how to limit the spread of the virus inside the hospital through strict protocols.

Unfortunately, doctors in almost all the provinces have either taken to the streets to protest the lack of PPE or shared their fears with journalists. Last month’s scenes of doctors protesting the lack of equipment in Quetta, and being baton-charged by police were ghastly.

The federal and provincial governments must plan ahead and ensure that such savage episodes are never repeated. Doctors’ pleas to authorities for better protection and restricted public movement must not go unnoticed.

Top officials should engage with the healthcare community to understand and address their concerns. Finally, if the rate of infections among medical workers continues to grow, the government must not be defensive about an extension in the lockdown.

The prime minister is right to note that Pakistan’s cases are not as bad as those of Italy and the UK. But he should not forget that our healthcare system is also far less sophisticated and developed than the one in those countries.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2020

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