THOUSANDS of healthcare workers in Pakistan are putting their lives on the line every day in the fight against the coronavirus. By end May, at least 1,900 had been infected. According to latest figures by the Pakistan Medical Association, 37 doctors and three paramedics have succumbed to the disease. In an acknowledgement of the dire risks they incur every day, the government on Friday announced a comprehensive support package for these medical professionals. Among its features is a Shuhada package from Rs3m to Rs10m for the families of those in the medical profession sacrificing their lives in the line of duty. Other aspects include tax exemption for front-line healthcare workers, provision of sufficient personal protection equipment, training for staff of public and private hospitals in critical care management of Covid-19 patients, prioritisation in testing them for the virus, etc.

With the total number of confirmed infections having crossed 142,000 and rising relentlessly every day, and more than 2,600 deaths — over 1,000 of them so far in this month alone — the stress on the healthcare system is becoming unsustainable. Reports are increasingly surfacing of packed-to-capacity Covid-19 wards and patients being turned away from hospital after hospital. Healthcare workers have little respite from their duties of caring for the sick, all the while filled with dread that they may unwittingly take the virus home and infect their own families. Any slip-up — perhaps an N95 mask reused once too often or a slight mistake in donning or removing PPE — can expose them to the contagion and its unforeseen consequences. On top of that, there have been several incidents of violence against healthcare workers by distraught family members of Covid-19 patients. It is therefore in the fitness of things that the government has finally come up with a holistic support package for these beleaguered professionals.

However, the best thing the state could have done for our healthcare workers was to listen to their urgent recommendations to bring down the infection transmission rate and flatten the curve so that the hospital network was not overwhelmed. After all, these medical personnel are the experts with a ringside view of ground zero: the health facilities where Covid-19 patients are being treated. Doctors have repeatedly warned of a catastrophe in the making, and through several press conferences pleaded with the government to enforce a lockdown, and implored the public to observe the SOPs. Instead, the federal government politicised the medical professionals’ sincere move to sound the alarm early on — we were at ‘only’ 10,000 cases at the time — as an attempt by the opposition to put pressure on it. Had the government not been so dismissive of their words, the burden on healthcare workers would quite likely not have become so crushing. Where we stand today, the elusive peak is nowhere in sight — only a situation becoming more precarious by the day.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020

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