Nurses at Yala Hospital in southern Thailand attend to Covid-19 patients on March 17. Concerns are growing that the country's health workers do not have adequate personal protective equipment. (Photo: AFP)
Medical workers on the front lines of Thailand’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic have been disproportionately affected by contracting the virus, some experts say.
The country has so far recorded just under 3,000 cases of infection, but by early April more than 80 of them were medical workers.
Another two medical workers were reported on April 29 to have contracted the virus, which causes potentially deadly complications, especially in elderly people and those with existing medical conditions.
The two new infections brought the number to 102 among Thai doctors and nurses.
Just as elsewhere in the region, medical personnel are especially at risk of contracting the airborne virus because they need to spend long periods close to infected patients.
Stressing that the easy spread of the virus poses constant risks to doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, medical experts and rights activists have called on Thai authorities to ensure that medical staff are better protected.
“The Thai government should ensure all staff at all medical facilities have adequate personal protection,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Nurses, doctors and other medical personnel are struggling with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), which is essential to keep them safe.
“Because new supplies haven’t arrived on time, PPE is rationed in many hospitals, requiring healthcare providers to work with ‘do it yourself’ protection gear they procure or make themselves.”
Of Thailand’s 3,000 reported cases of Covid-19 infections, 54 people have died, including some medical workers. Experts say these figures may have been under-reported by the government.
In addition to a heightened risk of infection, overwork is posing another risk to Thai medical staff. Many doctors and nurses do punishing 12-hour shifts as they care for Covid-19 patients.
One foreign news agency quoted an overworked 36-year-old nurse. “I’m scared of getting infected and the virus leaking from the hospital,” said the nurse, who has worked in an intensive care unit for 14 years.
Yet she insisted that she felt it was her job to stand by her patients. “I keep telling patients that they are not fighting alone,” she stressed.
Rights activists like Sunai are warning, however, that medical workers might end up facing pushback from officials if they speak out about their situation.
“Frontline healthcare workers in Thailand are working punishing schedules and facing risks of infection and burnout,” he said. “But their voices and concerns have been suppressed.”
Sunai has decried attempts by Thai authorities to clamp down on people who have voiced concerns about the government’s handling of the crisis.
“Whistleblowers in Thailand’s public health sector and online journalists face retaliatory ‘anti-fake news’ lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they either criticized the government’s response to the outbreak or reported essential medical supplies were not sufficiently available,” he said.
“Officials have also threatened some medical personnel with disciplinary action, including termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses, for speaking out about the serious shortage of essential supplies in hospitals.”