Punjab health workers use diluted sanitisers, cloth masks; health minister says state is “prepared”

27 March 2020
Due to a dearth of PPE kits required for treating COVID-19, a doctor wore the gear used for treating HIV positive patients in the emergency-surgery section of a government hospital in Punjab in March 2020. According to a doctor, the HIV kit does not offer protection from COVID-19.
Courtesy Jatinder Kaur Tur
Due to a dearth of PPE kits required for treating COVID-19, a doctor wore the gear used for treating HIV positive patients in the emergency-surgery section of a government hospital in Punjab in March 2020. According to a doctor, the HIV kit does not offer protection from COVID-19.
Courtesy Jatinder Kaur Tur

“The residents of Govt. Medical College, Amritsar, like many medical institutions across the country, are working in conditions that provide absolutely no protection against contracting the virus that knows no boundaries,” the Resident Doctors Association of Punjab’s chapter in the institute said in a letter dated 25 March. The association stated in the letter that there are “no masks, gloves or sanitisers available, let alone PPE kits”—personal protective equipment—“for those working in the emergency.” Two residents of the hospital have been admitted in the isolation ward for symptoms of COVID-19. 

“Examples of doctors working in these times, succumbing to the virus, seem to not have made an impact in this institution,” the association noted. It specified that repeated attempts at conversation about this “pitiful condition” to the authorities have failed. “Residents have been ordered to work, disregarding their own safety and the entire concept of the spread through healthcare workers.”  

The letter illustrates how healthcare workers in Punjab risk contracting the virus themselves while battling the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 26 March, the state had reported 33 cases of the virus. Doctors from government hospitals across the state also told me that they are facing a shortage of the essentials required to treat COVID patients, such as PPE, decontamination suits, hazmat suits, and even sanitisers. The hospitals are not equipped to deal with the outbreak, according to them. The crisis in Punjab assumes significance in light of the situation in Italy, which has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world—health workers in Italy make up nearly eight percent of the total cases in the country. In Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district too, fifteen health workers who were working in a hospital that treated a patient with COVID-19, have reportedly tested positive with the virus.

Balbir Singh Sidhu, the Punjab health minister, denied that there was any shortage of protective gear in Punjab. “We are the most equipped state in India talking about fighting the COVID-19 outbreak,” he told me on 25 March. “We have enough masks, sanitisers, PPE sets and ventilators. Health workers, including doctors, are getting everything, they need. Who says we are short of stuff?” 

According to doctor who works at a community health-centre in Fatehgarh Sahib, the staff is forced to use masks made from hospital bedsheets and “ordinary disposable masks which offer no protection in this viral infection.”. Courtesy Jatinder Kaur Tur According to doctor who works at a community health-centre in Fatehgarh Sahib, the staff is forced to use masks made from hospital bedsheets and “ordinary disposable masks which offer no protection in this viral infection.”. Courtesy Jatinder Kaur Tur
According to doctor who works at a community health-centre in Fatehgarh Sahib, the staff is forced to use masks made from hospital bedsheets and “ordinary disposable masks which offer no protection in this viral infection.”
Courtesy Jatinder Kaur Tur

Sidhu had earlier acknowledged that the state can potentially see a high number of coronavirus. On 23 March, he wrote a letter to his union ministry counterpart, Harsh Vardhan, stating that ninety thousand non-resident Indians entered the state in the month of March. “Many of them have symptoms of COVID-19 and are further spreading the disease through their contact/transmission,” Sidhu wrote. “We require more extra manpower, specialist, Intensvists, Anesthetists, Pulmonologists, doctors and nurses. We also require medicines, logistics, Ventilators and many other items. To meet these urgent demands and rise to the occasion to defeat this disease, Punjab State requires additional funds of minimum Rs. 150 Crores from Government of India.”

However, when I asked him about the letter, Sidhu said that the money had been sought to further strengthen the existing healthcare system in the state, “for tackling the future viral infections post the COVID-19 outbreak.” He seemed to be prematurely claim the state’s victory over the virus.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus Punjab
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