South Asia health workers at risk amid lack of PPE

A number of South Asian countries are now battling a grave danger in their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic – an alarming number of medical professionals getting infected with the novel coronavirus amid a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

To add to these concerns, media have reported on hospital wards being sealed off and health workers being asked to self-quarantine after coming into contact with Covid-19 patients.

Some governments have been promising and sporadically procuring PPE as well as scaling up local production, even as several doctors continue to treat Covid-19 cases without appropriate gear.

Medics illequipped, quarantined

In India, at least 200 healthcare workers have tested positive for Covid-19 so far and 12 private hospitals have been sealed, according to an 11 April news report by English-language daily Hindustan Times. The report added that this has also raised questions about the “preparedness of hospitals to tackle the pandemic”. A 12 April report by the daily cited data from the health department of national capital New Delhi that “one in every 25 people with Covid-19 in Delhi” is a healthcare worker, with at least 42 doctors, nurses or hospital staff infected.

In Pakistan, several medical professionals have tested positive, with at least one doctor dying of the virus. English-language daily The News International reported on 13 April that “around 100 doctors and paramedics”, who were treating patients at different hospitals across the country have fallen victim to Covid-19. English-language daily Dawn reported  on 13 April that the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), a representative body of doctors, has blamed the “low quality” PPE for the cases among health professionals. The Dawn had also reported on 6 April about a protest in Quetta city in Balochistan over the unavailability of PPE, where the agitating doctors were baton-charged and arrested. The report added that the protests came a day after 13 doctors tested positive for Covid-19 in Quetta.

Sri Lankan media have reported incidents where hospital wards were sealed off and health workers asked to self-quarantine after coming into contact with patients who later tested positive. A 5 April feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper cited concerns by nurses and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) regarding a lack of safety equipment, as well as “a heightened risk of psychological distress”. Politicians, too, have highlighted the issue. An article in privately-owned Tamil Mirror newspaper on 10 April reported that leftist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) claimed that the government had obtained 128.4m rupees [approximately 672,000 dollars] from the World Bank to control the spread of Covid-19, but had failed to provide PPE for health workers.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, a news report by English-language daily Dhaka Tribune on 20 March said that health workers were “putting themselves at risk while trying to identify and treat those infected with Covid-19”. Another report by the same outlet on 1 April claimed that the Bangladesh government was still “in the dark” regarding how many PPE were needed. The report cited Abdun Noor Tushar, adviser to Foundation for Doctors’ Safety and Rights, as saying that there are about 90,000 doctors in Bangladesh “who will need 5.1 million PPEs in three months”.

In Afghanistan, physicians have reportedly raised concerns over the lack of resources. The independent Tolo News channel on 7 April noted  a lack of funding to equip healthcare providers with PPE.

Nepal, meanwhile, continues to deal with the shortage following the cancellation of a much-criticised deal with a local company to procure medical equipment from China, even as the private sector has shown keenness to locally produce the gear. Nepal’s corruption control body Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority has begun a probe into the controversial procurement deal, according to a 10 April news report by English-language daily The Republica. English-language daily The Himalayan Times reported on 9 April that Nepal’s private sector has called on the government to provide necessary incentives to start manufacturing PPE. The report added that public and private hospitals are facing “acute shortage” of protective gear.

Government efforts

India’s health ministry has placed orders for 17 million PPE and 49,000 ventilators to aid healthcare workers and doctors in the fight against Covid-19, English-language website NDTV reported on 9 April. The report quoted the ministry’s Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal as saying that supplies of new PPE, ventilators and N95 masks have begun, 20 domestic manufacturers have been contacted, and the orders have been placed. He also urged states to use the supplies “rationally”, the report said.

Following the protests in Quetta, the Pakistan Army on 7 April said that “emergency supplies” of medical equipment, including PPE, were being dispatched to Quetta on orders of Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, according to a news report by English-language daily The Express Tribune. The report also cited him as saying that the government is striving hard to acquire and supply the required resources. Apart from this, the country has bought medical supplies from China, with the gear being brought in on 10 and 11 April, as reported by The News International.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan media have reported that the military has been working to address the shortage of equipment. English-language Daily FT newspaper on 24 March reported that the Sri Lanka Air Force and Army will be producing locally-designed PPE for the Ministry of Health.

The Nepalese government on 2 April entrusted the Army with the task of procuring essential medical supplies, a decision which has reportedly been questioned by critics. English-language daily The Kathmandu Post reported on 12 April that China and India have responded to the Army’s request for providing medical supplies. The report said that China is ready to supply protective gear and reagents, while India has agreed to supply medicines. The report added that the government authorised the Army to procure the items, “though the army lacks the expertise and legal mandate to carry out such an operation”.