ISLAMABAD: Pakistani doctors would need to triage COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks if the government failed to ensure a stricter lockdown and as hospitals run out of intensive care unit [ICU] beds and ventilators, the Pakistan Medical Association said on Sunday.
Doctors and lawyers have been pushing the federal government for a stricter nationwide lockdown to ensure social distancing and stem the rapid spread of the virus. But authorities say they are trying to save people and the economy from the virus through a “smart lockdown” – a partial lockdown of cities with some exemptions to businesses and industry.
“We are currently having around 75 to 80 percent occupancy of ICU beds, while private hospitals have stopped taking [COVID-19] patients on ventilators,” Dr. Qaisar Sajjad, secretary-general of Pakistan Medical Association told Arab News.
In the next ten days, the number of coronavirus cases is projected to reach at least 25,000, when public hospitals will not have ventilators for their seriously ill patients, he said.
“Ultimately, the doctors will have to triage between a father and a son,” he said. “And if we prioritize to treat the son first, there is no guarantee he’ll recover. We should be prepared for the worst.”
Sajjad said that his association had repeatedly warned the government about rapid growth in cases, but that their advice had fallen on deaf ears.
“If the number [of cases] keeps increasing, then nobody will be safe including the rulers,” he said.
The only treatment for the pandemic is social distancing, he said, urging the government to ensure strict lockdown at least for two weeks to flatten the curve.
Healthcare practitioners are frontline workers against the disease and are faced with multiple challenges to treat patients, including a shortage of personal protection equipment [PPE], ventilators and beds. At least 253 medical practitioners have been infected with the coronavirus in Pakistan so far including 124 doctors, 39 nurses and 90 health workers according to the Ministry of National Health Services.
“We are losing precious lives to coronavirus while the government is not consulting PMA to formulate an effective strategy to safeguard health practitioners,” Sajjad said while referring to the deaths of three doctors and a nurse due to COVID-19.
Pakistan has 1,279 public sector hospitals; 5,527 basic health units; 686 rural health centers and 5,671 dispensaries. These facilities, together with 220,829 registered doctors, 22,595 registered dentists and 108,474 registered nurses mean there is one healthcare practitioner for 963 people and one hospital bed for 1,608 people in the country of 210 million, according to Pakistan Economic Survey 2018-19.
Echoing doctors’ concerns, the Pakistan Bar Council – the highest elected body of lawyers in the country – has also urged the government to impose a stricter lockdown for two weeks to contain the spread of the virus.
“As the situation emerges, Pakistan can see a peak by end of May if the social distancing isn’t ensured in markets and mosques,” Syed Amjad Shah, vice chairman Pakistan Bar Council, told Arab News on Sunday.
He said that the courts could continue with “urgent work only” for the next two to three weeks. “We should sacrifice at least two weeks under the stringent lockdown to save our lives and protect others too around us,” Shah added.
Pakistan reported its highest 24-hour surge in virus cases since the outbreak on Sunday, with the tally at 12,723 COVID-19 cases and 269 deaths. Experts however, believe the number of suspects could be much higher in the impoverished nation as testing rates are still low.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan said on Sunday that the government was doing its work, but that the public was still not practicing social distancing and self-isolation.
“We are taking into account the reservations put forward by doctors regarding leniency in the lockdown,” she said, while talking to reporters on Sunday.
However, Awan said the government’s decision of a ‘smart lockdown’ would continue to help save people from the virus.
“Only those areas will be locked down where clusters of the virus are suspected,” she said while ignoring calls for a stricter government-imposed lockdown.