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.