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The Government Must Not Short-Change Healthcare Professionals

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It was 10th of March, around 4 am in the morning and I was doing my duty in Mayo Hospital Lahore as a deputy medical superintendent when I got a phone call from the Medical Superintendent and I was informed that the first case of Coronavirus in Lahore was on his way to Mayo Hospital. I was told to ensure proper isolation of the patient and I did as I was asked to do. Mr. Salman, who had recently returned from the UK, was admitted in Albert Victor Hospital, a building with wards and rooms.

With the stepping in of Coronavirus in Lahore, a medical emergency was declared by the Punjab government and with it all the casual and earned leaves were cancelled immediately. I was deputed on night shifts as a DMS in the Accident & Emergency department. Before the declaration of the medical emergency, another DMS and I were working on alternate nights from 8pm till 8am but, a couple of weeks later we were asked to come to the hospital every night which we did without any question. The number of corona cases started to increase and with it the frustration and emotional trauma of watching them die. Unfortunately, we did not expect the virus to hit us like it did; hospitals started becoming over burdened and doctors over worked. With the increased spread of the virus, the fear of getting infected started encircling the healthcare professionals’ community and the demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) echoed across the country. While the doctors in hospitals were forced to literally beg for N95 masks and PPEs, the health minister of Punjab and other representatives outright denied the insufficient provision of the protective gears to doctors working in hospitals. This resulted in healthcare workers being infected with the deadly virus and many lost their lives while saving the lives of others.

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The CM Punjab on the 26th of March announced that in addition to our monthly salary, they will be giving us a month’s basic salary as a Corona Risk Allowance till the pandemic lasts. This was thought of as a positive step towards recognition of the services that the health workers were rendering to the county. We, the healthcare workers who were working tirelessly, with good intent and passion to serve, expected the government to stand behind us during this time of war against a microscopic virus that doesn’t discriminate.

But, to our disappointment, all that was promised turned out to be mere words. Till today, the promised extra salary has not been given to anyone. People with knowledge say that there were internal arguments within the policy-makers on the issue. It is said that some wanted it to be given to all exposed to the virus during their course of duty while others who ultimately prevailed got such a notification issued which denied this allowance even to those exposed to the virus – like the doctors and nurses working in emergencies where patients initially come for checkups and emergency care. It is pertinent to note that during the time of a pandemic, the majority of whose patients are asymptomatic, the likelihood of a patient landing in the emergency being a COVID asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic remains extremely high. I myself witnessed many patients admitted via emergency for other health issues, later turning out to be COVID positive.

Naturally the proportion of doctors who are coming down with COVID is higher in those working in nonspecific environments because they have not been provided sufficient PPEs. It is ironic that these health workers, despite catching COVID while performing their duty of patient care, have not qualified for the Corona Risk Allowance. This is despite the fact that they work under comparatively less safe SOPs and minimal PPEs. What is even more surprising is the fact that doctors performing management duties anywhere, including the Corona specialized units, also stand excluded.

Besides all this, forced deductions from the pay of doctors towards the Corona Relief Fund – which were promised to be reversed many weeks ago – still stand as is.

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All these issues need immediate attention of the authorities so that the health workers can fulfil their duties of combating the disease with proper focus. They must be secure in the knowledge that they have an administration which supports them in their efforts.

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Naya Daur