An Upazila Health Complex of Gaibandha received 20 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) from the local livestock department on Monday. That supply did not help doctors at the Fuljhuri health complex breathe a sigh of relief as they had seen numerous videos on YouTube on how doctors in Wuhan had taken preparation to fight the coronavirus.
What these upazila doctors have in hand is a molehill compared to the mountains in armaments of the Wuhan doctors.
The upazila livestock department had received the PPE around 10 years ago in 2011 during the outbreak of bird flu. People who were in charge of burning chickens that died of the flu had been given the equipment to wear during the task. Some equipment has remained unused for a decade.
Doctors of the health complex today used five of the PPE to treat patients coming there with fever, sneezing, coughing and other complications.
"We are not sure when we will receive more PPE from the district civil surgeon's office. This stock will end in a couple of days as the PPE we got can be used only once," one of the nine doctors in the health complex told this correspondent on condition of anonymity.
"Even I do not know if the PPE has already gone past its expiry date," he said, "but we are using it as we do not have any other alternative."
This correspondent contacted with the civil Surgeon of Gaibandha district whose office is supposed to provide all health complexes in the district with PPE, but he refused to give any details.
"We have got some PPE for the health complexes. We will ensure the distribution soon," said Dr ABM Hanif.
He, however, refused to give any number, saying, "I cannot tell you how many we received."
The livestock departments in Pabna and Bogura also appeared as saviors for the doctors working in the upazila health complexes in the districts.
The Bogura civil surgeon office has sought 15,000 sets of PPE from the health directorate. But, it received only 100. The livestock department gave the district civil surgeon office 200 sets.
"We will distribute them among upazila health complexes tomorrow," Mustafizur Rahman, deputy civil surgeon, told our Bogura correspondent.
Without protective measures, doctors at health complexes are giving people medical care – though on a limited scale – taking risk.
In Pabna, Mamunur Rashid, livestock officer of Sadar upazila, said they have given some PPE to upazila health complexes from their stock. They had got the PPE during the bird flu.
He, however, declined to tell the number of PPE sets his department supplied to the upazila health complexes.
The situation in Satkhira is more worrisome.
Zahangir Hossain, residential medical officer of Satkhira Sadar Hospital, claimed that doctors and nurses were given PPE, masks and gloves.
But on condition of anonymity a doctor of the hospital claimed that they have been given raincoats instead of PPE. The hospital authority, however, gave them money for this.
The information we received from districts shows a huge gap between demand and supply.
For example, Bogura Shaheed Zia Medical College Hospital sought 10,000 sets of PPE. But the 500-bed hospital received only 270 on Monday, officials in the hospital said.
Another hospital in the district, Mohammad Ali Hospital, has sought 5,000 sets. The 250-bed hospital received only 100 sets of PPE from the health directorate.
Officials in the Pabna civil surgeon office said they have received 300 sets and they gave each upazila health complex 5 sets and district general hospital 30 sets, reports our Pabna correspondent.
District Civil Surgeon Dr Iqbal Mehedi is following the same strategy of his colleague in Gaibandha.
"We cannot disclose how many PPE sets we have received due to strategic reasons," he said.
Our correspondents checked and found severe shortage of PPE in some other districts, including Sylhet, Rangpur,Rajshahi, Kurigram, Brahmanbaria, Magura, Mymensingh and Netrokona.
The situation on the ground does not match with Health Minister Zahid Maleque's claim that the ministry has sufficient PPE. In a press conference on Monday, he told us, "We have sufficient personal protective equipment, though we do not need this much."
The ministry, however, could easily have avoided the PPE crisis that put the frontline fighters – doctors and nurses – in a difficult situation in giving people medical care had it paid heed to the advice of the Centre for Disease Control of the DGHS regarding purchase of the equipment.
According to media reports, on February 17, the CDC wrote to the health ministry, seeking 1 lakh pieces of PPE, 5 lakh surgical masks and surgical goggles and other equipment. But the ministry did not act on the advice.
Considering the urgency, the National Board of Revenue on March 21 removed all forms of import duties and taxes to encourage quick import of PPE, coronavirus testing kits and other materials required to fight the coronavirus.
Another claim of the minister regarding the stock of testing kits is also misleading.
On Monday, he claimed that there are sufficient testing kits stocked in the country.
"The government has now a stock of one lakh coronavirus testing kits as 50,000 new kits arrived here recently," he said.
The sudden claim came as surprise to many as the IEDCR has been conducting fewer tests for over a month due to the shortage of kits.
In our effort to check the authenticity of his claim, we talked to a number of officials in the health directorate and the IEDCR. But, none of them is aware of having a stock of one lakh testing kits. They said the minister might have made the claim based on the power and energy ministry's assurance.
The power and energy ministry in a press release on Monday said it would give the health ministry 50,000 sets of PPE and 50,000 testing kits.
The ministry officials said they would supply the PPE and kits in a month.