Islamabad, Pakistan – Police in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta have arrested at least 50 doctors who were protesting against the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits for health workers on the front lines of the country’s battle against the coronavirus, officials and doctors’ union representatives said.
Representatives of the Young Doctors Association (YDA), who organised the protest, said at least 67 members had been arrested on Monday.
Release orders had been issued for those detained, said Dr Rahim Khan Babar, a YDA spokesman, but they were refusing to leave the police stations where they were being held until their demands for additional PPE kits were met.
“I was arrested yesterday, I am still in the police station,” Babar told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
“They have given orders for our release, but we have refused to leave, because no steps have been taken. Doctors came out for equipment, and you beat them and then locked them up. What kind of law is that?”
Video footage from Monday’s protest showed dozens of doctors raising slogans and criticising the provincial government. Shortly afterwards, police stepped in to end the protest, clashing with several of the protesters and detaining dozens.
On Tuesday, doctors across the province went on strike in non-critical care wards to protest against the arrests and lack of equipment, Babar said.
The number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan rose sharply on Monday, with 584 additional cases bringing the country’s number of active cases to 3,378, with 54 deaths and at least 429 patients having recovered since the outbreak began in late February, according to government data.
Pakistan has been struggling to provide sufficient PPE kits to doctors during the outbreak, with orders for additional equipment often mired in a backlog created by increased global demand, government officials told Al Jazeera.
Doctors vulnerable to virus
Quetta is the capital of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest but least-populated and poorest province, which has been plagued by some of the lowest socioeconomic indicators in the country for years.
Doctors say a lack of government preparedness has led to dangerous conditions for health workers at major hospitals.
“In the trauma centre, before the coronavirus, we had enough kits that if we were operating in the operation theatre, we had a surgical mask and cap,” said Babar, who works at a public sector hospital. “Now we don’t even have that.”
Babar said a shortage of kits meant only healthcare professionals deployed in dedicated coronavirus wards had access to basic protective equipment, leaving doctors working in other wards vulnerable to the spread of the highly contagious virus.
So far, at least 18 doctors have been infected with the coronavirus in Balochistan, according to government data. In all, the province has recorded 202 cases, with one death and 63 patients having recovered from the virus.
Government officials, however, claimed there were sufficient PPE kits in those hospitals designated to deal with coronavirus patients, and that Monday’s protest was more focused on an ongoing contract dispute.
Liaquat Shahwani, the provincial government spokesman, said the dispute was being resolved, and that the provincial government was recruiting 1,400 doctors to address increased needs during the coronavirus crisis.
“The Balochistan government has already been providing [doctors] with sufficient masks, equipment and medicine,” said Shahwani. “There is just one hospital in all of Balochistan that is dealing with coronavirus patients – the Sheikh Zayed hospital [in Quetta] – and we have provided all equipment there.”
The government says it has provided 2,000 PPE kits, 50,000 N95 face masks, 32,000 surgical masks and 1,000 head coverings to provincial hospitals. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s military said it was dispatching more PPE kits to help doctors in Balochistan.
Emergency supplies of medical equipment including PPEs being despatched to Quetta on orders of COAS to help medical staff fight Covid-19 effectively in Balochistan. “Doctors & paramedics are the frontline soldiers in this war…” (1/2)
— DG ISPR (@OfficialDGISPR) April 7, 2020
Balochistan was at the centre of the country’s initial outbreak of the virus, with at least 1,123 (29 percent) of all cases countrywide traceable to a quarantine camp at Taftan on the Pakistan-Iran border.
In recent days, however, Pakistan has seen a marked rise in local transmission of the virus between people who have no travel history or history of contact with someone who has travelled, government data shows.
At least 21.4 percent of cases countrywide – and more than 30 percent of cases in Balochistan – can now be traced to local transmission.
Meanwhile, patients said the doctors’ strike in Balochistan meant people in critical need were not receiving the care they needed.
“There are no senior doctors, nor any young doctors, nor any other staff is coming,” said Noor Muhammad Kurd, whose brother is a cardiac patient at Quetta’s main government hospital.
“Even patients in a very serious condition are not being treated.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim. Additional reporting by Saadullah Akhtar in Quetta.