Doctors launch hunger strike over coronavirus protection fears

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LAHORE: Dozens of doctors and nurses have launched a hunger strike, demanding adequate protective equipment for frontline staff treating coronavirus patients, the lead organiser of the protest said on 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 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 organising 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 told AFP.

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 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.

Provincial health department officials told AFP that hospitals had now been provided with adequate protective gear after an earlier “backlog” was resolved.

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. –AFP

News desk adds: The protest comes at the heel of the Lahore High Court (LHC) dismissing a petition against the non-availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors treating coronavirus patients in Punjab, on Saturday.

The LHC dismissed the plea and fined petitioners for wasting the court time. In a 5-page written verdict, the court ruled that the petitioners had mala-fide intentions when they filed the plea.

The LHC chief justice slammed doctors for filing the petition, stating that the claim had been made “without solid evidence”.

“The doctors filed the petition without solid evidence and with the sole purpose of gaining cheap publicity. The court reserves the right to act against people who file unnecessary petitions,” the ruling stated.

“If the authorities believe that the petition is against the civil service conduct rules, they may take action against the petitioners. These doctors and paramedics are leading the fight against the coronavirus,” it added.

“Doctors are risking their lives every day to treat virus patients. There is no doubt that the medical profession is a respectable profession that aims to serve humanity,” the written order read.

“The doctors diligently discharged their duties even when their own relatives of virus-affected patients would not be there for the patients. Doctors should exercise caution while discussing matters,” it added.

“The whole world has been affected by the spread of the pandemic. Even developed countries are facing difficulties in procuring and providing for the personal protective equipment of health workers,” the order noted.