New figures released by Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA) have once again put the spotlight on the harsh toll that the Covid-19 pandemic is taking on frontline healthcare workers. As of July 5, at least 5,001 frontline workers including doctors, nurses and other medical staff have tested positive, with 62 doctors confirmed to have lost their lives battling the coronavirus. Of the infected, there are 1,724 doctors, 1,352 nurses and 1,925 other staff. Add to that the 11 doctors who have died of suspected coronavirus, according to another estimate by Bangladesh Doctors' Foundation. As unnerving as these figures are, they may be just the first casualties, with the odds growing longer for those on the front lines as coronavirus cases continue to surge in the country and personal protective equipment (PPEs) become harder to access.
The good thing is, documentation of new cases among healthcare workers shows a slower trend. But it is hardly comforting given their overall high number, representing 3.08 percent of the total cases in Bangladesh, leading the BMA secretary general to call it the highest in the entire South Asian region. Such a high infection rate among frontline workers—and in a country with a dismal doctor-patient ratio of only 5.26 to 10,000, according to a 2019 estimate—is deeply disconcerting. There is also a severe gap between sanctioned and filled health worker positions, meaning there are already far fewer physicians and nurses than necessary, hindering proper and timely healthcare. Our depleting PPE inventory as well as lack of infection prevention and control programmes in hospitals are also making the job difficult for the health workers, for whom getting infected while on duty has become an almost daily reckoning.
The health workers are still putting their lives at risk because that's what they do, despite having to deal with not just grief over fallen colleagues but a mix of anger, frustration and fear at the insanely chaotic situation in healthcare. In a strongly-worded letter sent to the health minister last month, the BMA blamed the ministry and the Directorate General of Health Services for the infections among doctors. We cannot allow this situation to continue any longer. These frontline workers are at the heart of our response to Covid-19 and we need them to be safe and protected. The government must add more hands to the emergency workforce and equip them with sufficient PPEs and other necessary tools. And there should be proper treatment facilities for those infected. Unless we do that, we cannot expect our healthcare workers to continue to care for patients at grave personal risks.