On March 24, a doctor in Quetta tested positive for COVID-19, marking the start of a conflict between the government and healthcare practitioners that resulted in doctors shutting down services at public hospitals.
By March 28, four doctors in Quetta had contracted the virus and healthcare providers started calling for personal protective equipment, fearing an increase in the number of coronavirus cases.
The Balochistan Young Doctors Association (YDA) issued a statement, claiming that the government has failed to provide basic safety equipment for doctors, which may cause the virus to spread among doctors. They insisted the government issue permanent employment orders for doctors working on contracts.
But no measures were taken and coronavirus cases among health practitioners continued to rise, reaching nine as doctors and lab technicians at different hospitals in Quetta tested positive. The doctors then threatened to go on strike if they didn’t get the protective gear.
So far, 15 doctors and four other healthcare staff have tested positive for the virus in Balochistan but only two of these doctors and one healthcare staffer were working exclusively with COVID-19 patients.
In the meantime, the health department suspended five officers and fired four health staff for not performing duties. Twelve doctors were suspended for not working at the quarantine centre in Quetta.
The doctors took matters into their own hands and called for donations to purchase their own protective gear. They managed to collect Rs2.5 million. But when the list went viral on social media, the government spokesperson, Liaquat Shahwani, said the campaign was fake. He claimed the doctors were being provided safety gear, causing outrage among medical professionals.
Another 44 doctors were then suspended for refusing to work at the quarantine centre in Taftan.
The YDA began a protest against the government and locked the offices of the medical superintendents and deputy medical superintendents of Civil Hospital and BMC Hospital in Quetta, the two largest hospitals in the entire province.
On April 5, doctors announced a sit-in outside the Chief Minister House after 14 doctors and four other healthcare workers had tested positive for COVID-19. The rally began at Civil Hospital but was stopped at the entry gate to CM House. The police charged at the doctors with batons and over 50 were arrested and taken to three different police stations.
That was when things escalated into a full-out war. Young doctors, nurses and paramedical staff announced a complete boycott at hospitals in Quetta, including emergency services. Later, when the government announced it would release the doctors and address their concerns, the doctors rejected the release and stayed at the police stations.
“All the demands have been accepted, doctors are requested to come out of the police stations,” spokesperson Shahwani had appealed. But the doctors said they wanted their demands fulfilled before they would leave the police stations. They claimed over 150 doctors had been arrested, triple the amount the government claimed.
On April 7, a strike was called at hospitals in the city on the call of the YDA and Pakistan Medical Association. A government committee headed by Agriculture Minister Zamrak Achakzai spoke to the YDA and accepted their demands, including the provision of safety gear, extension of contracts and an investigation into the police baton charge.
The doctors said they would end the strike and resume services but the truce lasted for less than 24 hours. Doctors and paramedics staged another rally from Civil Hospital to Chief Minister House late that night and held a sit-in.
“The government doesn’t seem to be interested in addressing our issues,” YDA President Dr Yasir Khan justified.
While the doctors sat in the Red Zone outside CM House, Chief Minister Jam Kamal lashed out, calling it blackmail. “We distributed more safety kits among the doctors and healthcare staff, taking all the measures to address their concerns, but it looks like doctors are being played in the hands of a mafia,” he said.
“I wish they could serve and give their energy and time more towards addressing the emergency and what the people need,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that he hoped their protest wasn’t “politically motivated”.
He also claimed that doctors were using the situation for personal gain, demanding the cancellation of interviews conducted to hire new doctors, nurses and other staff for the province’s emergency response against COVID-19.
This dissolved into a Twitter spat, as the YDA then claimed that “after taking signatures for the N95 masks, the administration has handed masks made of paper”. The YDA president said they were forced to come out onto the streets because the government accepted their demands but didn’t implement any measures to fulfill them.
The protest was called off after the police issued a notification about the formation of a special committee to investigate the baton charge.
The two groups are now heading towards reconciliation as a committee of provincial ministers and secretaries met the YDA to negotiate. The second round was to be held on April 10 (today) and the agreement between the YDA and government is expected to be finalised.