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COVID-19: Why Pakistan's government and doctors are at odds

S. Khan Islamabad
April 16, 2020

Doctors and health workers in Pakistan are angry over a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). PM Imran Khan's government is facing severe criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the country.

Policemen arrest a doctors in the course of a protest during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Quetta on April 6, 2020
Image: AFP/B. Khan

More than 100 doctors and medical workers in Pakistan have so far been infected with the novel coronavirus while interacting with patients. Two doctors — one in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan area, and the other in the southern Karachi city — have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the Pakistani government extended the countrywide lockdown for two more weeks but eased some restrictions. The country's clerics say they will hold congregational prayers and will no longer follow government orders against mass prayers. As the Islamic month of Ramadan is around the corner, special mass prayers could hamper Pakistan's efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Doctors fear that the easing of social distancing restrictions and the clerics' defiance of the lockdown could put them in harm's way.

"We are facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other medical facilities. The government is not helping us, not providing protective gear to the medical staff working in emergency wards," Tipu Sultan, former president of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), told DW.

"On top of it, the government is easing restrictions and clerics are vowing to hold mass prayers in mosques. It could all lead to a surge in coronavirus cases in the country. I fear that our entire public healthcare system will be overwhelmed," Sultan added.

Abdul Ghaffor Shoro, PMA's secretary-general in Karachi, agrees with Sultan. "It seems that the government is neither taking the situation seriously nor is it interested in addressing doctors' complaints," Shoro told DW.

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Harsh response to doctors' demands

Pakistan has recorded close to 7,000 coronavirus cases and 128 related deaths. Thousands of health workers are on the frontline to battle the pandemic, but a lack of PPE and other health facilities have exposed them to the risk of contracting the disease.

"The government promised to give us PPE some 10 days ago, but we are still waiting for it," Shoro said.

Read more: Coronavirus: Is Pakistan taking COVID-19 too lightly?

Pakistan's public healthcare system is among the worst in the world. In 2019, the Pakistani government allocated only 13 billion rupees (€0.16 billion, $0.174 billion) for its federal health budget.

Shoro says that doctors don't want to put too much pressure on authorities, as they are cognizant of the government's problems. "We do not want to set a deadline or call for a strike, but for god's sake, doctors are dying. Over 100 of them have been tested positive for COVID-19. The number is probably higher because we haven't tested much. We believe that thousands of health workers have been infected with coronavirus," Shoro said.

On April 6, police used force against protesting doctors in the western city of Quetta. The doctors were demanding that authorities provide them with protective gear in hospitals. Although the protest took place last week, doctors in Quetta are yet to receive PPE.

"We are still working without PPE," Yasir Khan, president of the Young Doctors' Association, Baluchistan, told DW.

Read more: South Asia leaders to discuss how to tackle coronavirus

Coronavirus: Bangladesh hospitals deal with shortage of doctors

Uncertain future

The situation is not much different in other parts of the country. According to Asfandyar Khan, chairman of the Young Consultants' Association of Pakistan, more than 250 doctors and para-medical staff at Pakistan's Institute of Medical Science in Islamabad are dealing with COVID-19 patients without any protective gear. Khan says that these medical officials interact with over 1,000 patients daily and are totally exposed to coronavirus.

The government has urged the medical community to use the existing PPE efficiently, citing a lack of funds to provide the equipment to all staff.

"We have allocated funds to address doctors' concerns, but the doctors should also keep in mind the overall situation. Even the US and European countries are unable to provide all facilities to their doctors," said Muhammad Iqbal Khan Afridi, a member of parliament.

Experts say that if the government does not step up efforts to protect medical workers from COVID-19, more doctors could go on strike. This could endanger the health of coronavirus patients and hamper Pakistan's fight to contain the disease.

Read more: Indian cricketers face backlash for supporting Pakistan virus fund