Doctors in Pakistan are warning that with lockdown restrictions lifted, the country’s already weak healthcare system could soon be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients as the country runs out of intensive care units in hospitals.
According to data, in Karachi, a city of 15 million people, only a handful of ICU beds are available for Covid-19 patients. Whilst in Lahore, a doctor recounted to being forced to turn away a patient who needed a ventilator, after he had already been rejected by two other hospitals. Medics in Peshawar and Quetta described being under similar levels of pressure.
Officials acknowledge some hospitals are full but insist there are still large numbers of beds available elsewhere, and are making public information about where are they are.
However, doctors fear the number of critical cases will continue to rise, and say their efforts to treat patients are being hampered by conspiracy theories and mistrust.
“Many ill people try and stay at home… Only when their condition has gotten a lot worse do they come to the hospital,” a leading doctor in Quetta said.
As a result, he said, large numbers of his patients died shortly after arrival or in the ambulance.
Concerns about the quality of medical care, a reluctance for family members to be quarantined, and bizarre rumours are swirling around is making the situation even more complicated.
One such rumour claims that doctors are being paid by the World Health Organization (WHO) to falsely declare patients as coronavirus sufferers.
One doctor from Karachi, who asked to remain anonymous, was recently contacted by a friend asking for medical advice, saying: “My son is having flu and fever but I do not want to take him to the hospital because doctors are just declaring every fever is Covid, and they’re taking 500 rupees ($3) per case”.
As per some media reports, such rumours have also led to patients’ attacking hospital staff in Karachi, Peshawar and Lahore.
At the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre in Karachi, an isolation ward was trashed by a mob when the body of a patient wasn’t handed over immediately to the family. In Pakistan, funerals are normally carried out as soon as possible, as per Islamic tradition, with large numbers of mourners attending – neither of which are possible if someone dies, or is suspected of dying, with coronavirus.
Dr Jamal Awan, who works at Mayo Hospital in Lahore, said security had to be increased on the wards after a number of recent violent flare-ups.
In one instance, a family was told an ICU bed with a ventilator wasn’t available for their relative, who was in a critical condition and subsequently died. A doctor on duty at the time, Amara Khalid, said that 20 to 30 members of the group attempted to attack hospital staff. She said some of the relatives shouted out angrily: “If coronavirus is real… how are you not sick?”
“I felt terrible, I even thought about leaving the job after that incident but we just can’t,” she said. “If everybody leaves, then who is going to work?”
Many doctors fear the worst is yet to come, and have expressed frustration with the decision to lift the bulk of lockdown restrictions last month.
Dr Rizwan Saigol, who works at the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, said that even prior to the pandemic he had seen families “begging for ventilators”. Now, he said, the situation feels “really scary”. If the number of cases continues to rise, he added, “Our hospitals will get exhausted… We do not have enough ICUs or ventilators”.