LAHORE: Dozens of Pakistani doctors and nurses have launched a hunger strike demanding adequate protective equipment for frontline staff treating coronavirus patients, the lead organizer of the protest said Saturday. Health workers have complained for weeks that the country's hospitals are suffering chronic shortages of safety gear, prompting the arrest of more than 50 doctors who called for more supplies in the city of Quetta earlier this month.
Frontline staff have been left vulnerable, with more than 150 medical workers testing positive for the virus nationwide, according to the Young Doctors' Association (YDA) in worst-hit Punjab province. Several Pakistan doctors and nurses have died from COVID-19, including a 26-year-old physician who had recently started his career, and an official told AFP that a specialist at a state-run hospital died from the disease Saturday. The protesters have kept working in their hospitals while taking turns to demonstrate outside the health authority offices in provincial capital Lahore.
"We do not intend on stopping until the government listens to our demands. They have been consistently refusing to adhere to our demands," said doctor Salman Haseeb. Haseeb heads the province's Grand Health Alliance, which is organizing the protest, and said he had not eaten since April 16. "We are on the front line of this virus and if we are not protected then the whole population is at risk," he said. The alliance said about 30 doctors and nurses were on hunger strike, with up to 200 medical staff joining them each day for demonstrations.
Punjab's health worker union is supporting the alliance and also demanding adequate quarantine conditions for medical staff. Nearly three dozen doctors, nurses and paramedics contracted the virus in one hospital in the city of Multan, while seven members of a doctor's family were infected in Lahore, it said. "We are simply demanding justice for our community," said doctor and YDA chairman Khizer Hayat. Hospital staff would not escalate their protest by walking off the job, he added.
Calls for tougher lockdowns
Provincial health department officials told AFP that hospitals had now been provided with adequate protective gear after an earlier "backlog" was resolved. Earlier this month the Punjab government announced that frontline workers would be awarded a pay bonus and life insurance.
Almost half of the nearly 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections across Pakistan have been recorded in Punjab. The number of infections in the country is believed to be far higher because of a lack of testing in the impoverished country of 215 million. Shehzad Akbar, medical director at a public hospital in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told AFP that an ear, nose and throat specialist working on the COVID-19 ward died Saturday of the disease.
The doctor's death prompted renewed calls for tougher government action and complete lockdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan officially began in Pakistan on Saturday, with concerns that the light restrictions imposed on mosque gatherings will not stop a potentially rapid spread of the virus. Medical workers across the world have been grappling with shortages of vital safety equipment since the start of the pandemic. - AFP