Global human rights watchdog writes to Dr. Zafar Mirza and urges him to ensure front-line health workers have all necessary facilities
Amnesty International on Wednesday urged Pakistan to provide security to healthcare workers on the front-lines of the country’s coronavirus response and ensure the provision of personal protection equipment for to protect them from infection.
In a letter addressed to Special Assistant to the P.M. on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza, the global rights watchdog’s South Asia head, Omar Waraich, said that he was compelled to write out of “extreme concern for the lives and safety of health workers in Pakistan, who have played an extraordinary and critically important role in the response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Noting that health workers are particularly vulnerable to infection—at least 5,367 health workers across Pakistan have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with 58 reported deaths—Amnesty said that doctors, nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers and other medical staff were performing their jobs despite the risks and “deserve not only our gratitude but also the state’s protection.”
Summarizing recent reports of attacks on healthcare workers and hospitals across Pakistan since April, Amnesty said the majority of such assaults had occurred after they either “followed standard operating procedures for returning the body of a COVID-19 victim to their relatives, or where medical facilities have been unable to provide medical care due to an acute scarcity of resources.”
It said that one of the primary reasons for the attacks appeared to irresponsible statements from ministers who have claimed hospitals have necessary resources, despite reports of hospitals having to turn away patients due to shortage of beds, ventilators and other life-saving equipment. “This puts health workers in danger as people do not believe them when they say they do not have room for more patients,” it added.
In his letter, Waraich said the frustration of families of COVID-19 patients was understandable, and “given its scale, even the best and most well-resourced healthcare systems have struggled to cope with the pandemic.” However, it noted, this made it even more necessary for Islamabad to take all reasonable measures to protect healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
The global rights watchdog has recommended a series of measures to ensure health workers are protected:
- Prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of any acts of violence against healthcare workers exhibiting zero tolerance for perpetrators
- Ensure all hospital employees are provided adequate personal protection equipment to safeguard themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Implement protocols to ensure healthcare facilities analyze risks to their staff face and put in place adequate security measures to address them
- Set up systems to document any violent incidents, discrimination and/or stigmatization faced by health workers and encourage workers to report such incidents
Pakistan’s first confirmed coronavirus case was reported in February and since then healthcare workers have repeatedly voiced alarm at people’s response to standard operating procedures provided by the government to curb the spread of COVID-19. Under the government instructions, bodies of COVID-19 patients cannot be handed over to their families, resulting in several clashes between families of patients and healthcare workers.
Similarly, families, especially of critical patients, have come to blows with healthcare workers after being informed that there is no more space for new patients at facilities. In a series of press conference, doctors, paramedics and nurses have called on the government to ensure their protection. Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed that their concerns would be addressed “shortly.”