Bangladesh's frontline health workers contend with resource scarcity, stigma and restrictions

Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay. Used under Pixabay's Free for commercial use license.

Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay. Used under Pixabay's Free for commercial use license.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

Around the world, frontline workers like doctors, farmers, shopkeepers, transporters, aid workers, and volunteers are playing a significant role in the fight against COVID-19. In Bangladesh, as in many other countries, such workers are facing an unprecedented level of hardship, and also some criticism.

Bangladesh has been under lockdown since March 26 and has experienced a significant rise in the number of cases due to an increase in the country's testing capacity — the country has  2,144 infected persons and has recorded 84 deaths at the time of writing. But there are concerns about how the tests are being conducted and also about the safety of healthcare workers. Many testing facilities are not equipped with basic resources and many workers lack the necessary training.

On April 15, Bangladesh saw the death of the first physician who was treating COVID-19 patients on the frontlines. So far more than 65 doctors and hundreds of nurses and other health professionals are in quarantine in Bangladesh after being exposed to infected patients and asymptomatic individuals. 40 of them have tested positive so far.

According to a Deutsche Welle report, many doctors have been staying home during the lockdown and patients with other health conditions are having trouble accessing treatment.

There is also increased scrutiny regarding medical professionals on social media. Bangladesh has roughly one doctor for every 1,847 citizens, and the medical facilities in rural areas are not as modern as the ones in urban centres.

Ever since March 7, when the country's first three COVID-19 cases were reported, health professionals have been voicing concern about the lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), which puts them at much higher risk when in contact with COVID-19 patients, even asymptomatic ones.

Six employees of the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control And Research (IEDCR) have tested positive for COVID-19, and reportedly all the agency's officers, including its director, have been sent into quarantine. Elsewhere in the country, there are reports of health professionals being sent to home quarantine, and also some questioning of the viability and efficacy of the home quarantines in a country like Bangladesh.

On April 7, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticised doctors who failed to report for duty during the pandemic, saying that “they have a duty to perform”. On April 11, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) suspended six doctors of Kuwait-Bangladesh Maitree Hospital, one of the designated hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients, citing “negligence”. Some of them allegedly refused to treat infected patients, while others failed to report for duty.

A doctor was also arrested for posting an audio clip with rumours about the novel coronavirus on social media.

On top of the resource shortage, the stigma surrounding COVID-19 has added to the hardships being experienced by both health professionals and COVID-19 patients. Stories of restricted access to living quarters and being chased out of homes and left on the street by their families have shocked the nation. In some parts of the country, local residents have protested the construction of emergency hospitals for COVID-19 patients in their areas, citing fears of the pandemic spreading in their communities.

A Netizen shared the following on Facebook:

ছোট বোন করোনায় আক্রান্ত,এ ক'দিন উর্দ্ধতন কতৃপক্ষের পরামর্শে হোম কোয়ারান্টাইনে ছিল।উপজেলা কমপ্লেক্সে সাসপেক্টেড কোভিড-১৯ রোগীর স্যাম্পল কালেকশন করতে গিয়ে সম্ভবত এক্সপোজড হয়,পরবর্তীতে রোগীর পজিটিভ আসে।সকালে এ খবর পাওয়ার পর থেকে পুরো পরিবার আল্লাহর কাছে সবর দিয়ে আছি,উনিই ফয়সালার মালিক। আপাতত তেমন শারীরিক অসুবিধা বোধ করছেনা,ওর হাজবেন্ডের (চিকিৎসক) স্যাম্পল ও কালেক্ট করে নিয়ে গেছে,ডিসি স্যার,সিভিল সার্জন মহোদয়ের পরামর্শে সে বাসায় থাকতে চেয়েছিল কিন্তু সম্ভব হয়নি, পিপিই পরা লোকজনের আনাগোনা দেখে সম্মানিত এলাকাবাসী লাঠিসোঁটা নিয়ে তাদের অভুক্ত অবস্থায় বাসা থেকে বের হয়ে যেতে বাধ্য করলো। আফসোস নাই, এমনি হওয়ার কথা ছিল, তাই-না?

My younger sister has contracted COVID-19, and was in home-quarantine, following the recommendations of the authorities. She got exposed most probably while collecting patient's sample In the Upazila Complex. The patient has been positive. Right now, they do not have any physical difficulty, her husband's sample was also collected to test for COVID-19. Seeing people in PPE gears, the neighbours chased the couple away. No regret, it was supposed to be like this, isn't it?

One initiative that should encourage health professionals is the new insurance scheme for government employees, including doctors, nurses and law enforcement officials leading the battle against COVID-19, announced by the Prime Minister on April 13. Under the scheme, all frontline responders, including medical professionals will be covered at a level between Tk 500,000 (US$ 5,900) and Tk 1 million (US$11,800) depending on their rank, and increase five-fold in case of death.

The government has also booked hotel rooms for frontline doctors and nurses so that they do not expose to their family members to the virus.

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