Healthcare workers (HCWs) are at the heart of the current crisis that the whole world is undergoing. Due to the spread of coronavirus, while all offices, services are closed or nearly closed, one institution across the world never closed for a moment is the hospital. Physicians, nurses, cleaning staffs – all the frontline fighters are working day-night restlessly. In Bangladesh, insufficiency of infrastructure, lack of quality medical equipment, diagnosis machinery, and geographic mal-distribution of Human Resource for Health (HRH) are some common issues which we have been grappling with for a long time. Due to lack of administrative preparation, Bangladesh is now paying the cost of this pandemic as the frontline fighters are also getting infected by this virus. According to the report of Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA), a total of forty-one doctors lost the battle against the deadly virus in the country. So far, around 1040 doctors, 901 nurses and 1360 staffs have been tested Covid-19 positive.
The rapid loss of senior doctors of the country is an irreparable loss for the health sector. Right to life and right to health as enshrined in Articles 32 and 18(1) of the Constitution respectively, are equally applicable to HCWs. If we cannot protect them, we run the risk of losing our ability to control the virus. According to the WHO, currently the doctor-patient ratio in Bangladesh is 5.81 per 10,000 people, which places the country at the second position from the bottom in South Asia. Comparing with countries like Austria (51.44), Finland (38.12) and France (32.67), is an absolute luxury for us. Since the country is already suffering from a shortage of HRH, can the country really afford losing more doctors?
Since the social transmission of Covid-19 has already started, the HCWs are facing multifarious problems. Firstly, at the early stage of the pandemic, lack of testing facilities and unavailability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has resulted in doctors to expose directly to this life-threatening virus. Moreover, concealing information or misinformation on symptoms by a significant number of patients resulted in the transmission of the virus to the HCWs. Secondly, social harassment by their landlord to leave the house in fear of virus infection. Thirdly, being blamed by patients, attendants for not providing medical equipment such as oxygen tubes and ventilation even if they are not responsible for the supply of these equipment and technical services. Fourthly, facing the allegation of denial of treatment to patients. However, in reality, without any safety gear, doctors and nurses are in no position to treat infected patients. Fifthly, working under extreme pressure, fear, lack of familiarity with PPE use and disposal, inappropriate working hours, and so on.
In this unprecedented period, while doctors are performing heroic tasks, one senior doctor, Dr. Abdur Rakib Khan from Khulna was beaten to death by a patient's family members on allegation of wrong treatment of pregnant woman causing her death. Evidently, the doctor-patient relationship in Bangladesh has reached rock bottom level and their rights in question.
To protect the HCWs against violence, very recently, India has promulgated the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, which amends century old the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. This amendment makes 'act of violence' against the HCWs, including doctors and nurses, punishable with three months to five years imprisonment with a fine of ₹50,000 to ₹2,00,000. For grievous injury, imprisonment term can be extended up to 7 years. Last year, China enacted its first comprehensive law on basic medical and healthcare, after a female doctor stabbed to death in Beijing. Article 57 of this Act prohibits any individual and organisation from threatening, harming the personal security of medical staff, or violating their dignity.
The government of Bangladesh has taken several positive measures to cope with the current crisis. On 7 April 2020, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced special insurance and stimulus for the HCWs and other employees of the republic for their frontline roles in the fight against coronavirus. Special incentives include health insurance of Tk 5-10 lakh (according to rank), and the amount will be five times higher if anyone is at higher risk of death or dies from the virus. Also, the government will bear the treatment cost of frontline medical staff contracting the virus while on duty. The respective total amounts are Tk. 100 crore for medical staff treating Covid-19 patients, and Tk. 750 crore for life insurance. The Anti-Corruption Commission has sent out a warning to landlords against giving eviction notice to the HCWs. Various private entities have also come forward to build hospitals, supplying protective equipment.
Despite all these, a few more steps must be taken to protect the rights of the HCWs. The allocation of budget for health sector should be increased remarkably to ensure the safety of the HCWs. For the security of the HCWs, appropriate laws must be applied in consulting with professionals working in this sector to protect them against violence. After all, nothing can justify hostility against the very people who are our first line of defence in this pandemic.
THE WRITER IS A STUDENT OF INTERNATIONAL LAW (LLM), SOUTH ASIAN UNIVERSITY, NEW DELHI.