Dhaka, Bangladesh – As coronavirus cases mount in Bangladesh, its government struggles to keep its front-line healthcare workers free from getting infected, which has further strained the country’s medical facilities.
At least 251 doctors had tested positive for coronavirus by Thursday, according to the Bangladesh Doctors Foundation (BDF), as the group blamed a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and infections from patients for the outbreak among the doctors.
Nearly 200 doctors are infected in the capital, Dhaka. So far, Bangladesh has reported 3,772 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 120 deaths.
Like many countries, Bangladesh is also grappling with a severe shortage of (PPE) for its health workers.
A recent study by the country’s BRAC University found that nearly 25 percent of doctors and nurses – and 60 percent of medical support staff – engaged in treating coronavirus patients have yet to receive PPE.
“PPE is our armour against a fatal virus. Without proper PPE, we are forced to fight a dangerous battle without any protection,” a doctor in Dhaka, who preferred anonymity, told Al Jazeera.
Health workers have also complained about the quality of PPE being provided to them.
“It’s more like a raincoat rather than a proper PPE,” Anis Ahmed, a physician who works with one of the government hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients, told Al Jazeera.
“Also, we are told to reuse the PPE even though they are meant for one-time usage.”
Meerjady Sabrina Flora, director of the Bangladesh government’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, admitted there was a shortage of “quality” PPE.
“It’s not our unique problem: healthcare workers across the world are facing [an] acute crisis of PPE. We are trying to outsource quality PPE from different places. Several private organisations have come forward to donate PPE,” she told Al Jazeera.
As demands for PPE have increased, some ready-made garment (RMG) factories started producing it. Bangladesh is the second-largest RMG exporter after China.
However, a report by the Business Standard said the RMG factories can only manufacture chemical-resistant PPE, and do not have a dust-free and medical-grade environment to produce medical-grade equipment.
“Without medical-grade PPE, our front-line healthcare workers are exposed to possible COVID-19 infection,” Nirupam Das, BDF’s chief administrator, told Al Jazeera.
Once infected with coronavirus, the doctors are quarantined and the hospital ward where they worked is shut for safety measures.
According to the BDF data, intensive care units and general wards of as many as 11 hospitals across Bangladesh had to be closed down after healthcare workers were infected.
“Bangladesh already has a fragile healthcare system. If we are forced to send our doctors to quarantine, then it will be extremely difficult for us to continue our fight against coronavirus,” said Das.
According to the World Bank’s development indicators, Bangladesh’s number of doctors per 1,000 people in 2017 was 0.5 – one of the lowest in the world.
Another problem the healthcare workers in Bangladesh are facing is that patients are concealing their medical symptoms and related information to avoid stigma, social isolation or quarantine.
Many people believe that if they get infected, their houses will be locked down and their family members will be treated negatively.
Besides, the designated hospitals for treating coronavirus patients are full to their capacity, forcing people displaying coronavirus-like symptoms to flock to public and private hospitals.
Since those hospitals are not treating COVID-19 patients, people are trying to get treatment there by hiding their symptoms.
In a recent news briefing, Bangladesh’s Minister of Health Zahid Maleque said, “It is a big problem that many people carrying the symptoms of COVID-19 are concealing information and showing little interest in undergoing tests.”
“That is why many of our doctors and health workers are getting infected with the virus. Such a tendency is very alarming,” he said.
Faisal Islam Fahim, a medical officer at Sher-e-Bangla Medical College and Hospital in Barisal District, told Al Jazeera that about 150 doctors of his hospital were forced to go into quarantine after two of them were found to be infected. The two doctors had handled a male patient who hid his symptoms to avoid quarantine.
“The patient lied about respiratory problems and pain in his throat and got admitted in the hospital. Two internee doctors handled him and grew suspicious once the patient showed symptoms. Later he was found to be COVID-19 positive. But the damage was done by then,” said Fahim.
A similar incident happened at the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, whose principal Khan Abul Kalam Azad told Al Jazeera that a female patient admitted there had hidden her coronavirus symptoms.
“The patient later tested positive for the virus and four of our nurses who handled her got infected,” he said.
Azad added that another doctor at Suhrawardy Hospital in the capital also tested positive after a COVID-19 patient concealed information.
“Those people who are hiding their symptoms don’t understand the problem. If our doctors and nurses get infected with COVID-19 by taking care of untested patients, then who will later take care of the patients?”