Kyrgyzstan: Hospital Staff Left Exposed

Those in the front line of the fight against coronavirus say that they are not being properly protected.

Kyrgyzstan: Hospital Staff Left Exposed

Those in the front line of the fight against coronavirus say that they are not being properly protected.

Medical workers in Kyrgyzstan fighting the spread of Covid-19 warn that they run the constant risk of infection due to inadequate protective clothing and poor specialist training.

Those on the frontline argue that both the government and the trade union for medical workers should be more supportive, but say that they fear being harassed or fired if they complain about the lack of provision.

According to the country’s central agency for combatting coronavirus, as of April 20, 140 medical workers had been infected, including doctors, nurses, laboratory assistants and epidemiologists, as well as workers in canteens and laundries.

The Kyrgyz minister of health, Sabirzhan Abdykerimov, told a parliamentary committee that an investigation was currently underway on identifying how the infection had been allowed to spread amongst medical personnel.

But doctors themselves say that the problem lies in a lack of basic equipment or hygiene measures.

Infectious disease specialist Maksat, who asked that he and his place of work not be identified, is now in home quarantine having been exposed to the virus. His family members have temporarily moved to separate accommodation.

Maksat said that he was called in for duty as so many other staff were off sick. He was given one set of protective clothing, which should be changed every three to four hours, although he ended up wearing it for much longer.

“When I went on duty, only one suit was prepared,” he told IWPR. “But since there were no others, I had to wear it until the end of the shift.”

Although Maksat is specially trained in resuscitation, he was unprepared for the new protocols in place for working with Covid-19 patients.

“After identifying an infected patient, they shouldn’t have called me to work without appropriate preparation… And according to the schedule, I should not have been on duty. It turned out that many doctors, frightened by the state of affairs, refused to go on duty,” says Maksat. 

He added that protective equipment such as masks and gloves were simply thrown on the floor rather than being disposed of hygienically, and nurses were not briefed on basic hygiene measures such as the appropriate strength of the chlorine solution used for disinfection.

Maksat said he had been reluctant to complain in case he got into trouble with his superiors. This fear seems to be widespread, with one medical team in the Ala-Buka district complaining in a Youtube video that they had been infected at work because their supervisors ignored their requests for proper safety equipment.

“Our outfits did not meet the requirements,” said Buaida Temiralieva, a member of the team. “We worked for 24 hours; if the uniforms were washed in the evening, they did not have time to dry and in the morning we wore them wet. When we talked about it with management, they said, ‘work and shut your mouth.’”

In mid-April, Prime Minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev ordered an investigation into how doctors at the Bishkek polyclinic were infected with coronavirus. Elsewhere, the chief doctor of the Ala-Buka district hospital was fired because doctors had been infected.

According to the national headquarters for Covid-19, the ministry of health is responsible for the well-being of physicians. But medical personnel have also criticised their trade union for failing to defend their rights.

Ainura, an anesthesiologist and expert in resuscitation who asked to remain anonymous, works in a city hospital in Bishkek. She said that each doctor received one set of protective clothing each day, although to be effective these outfits should be changed every few hours.

The union, she continued, did not care about the conditions those it was supposed to represent had to work in.

“The only thing [the union] do now is competing for position, since the head of the trade union is retiring very soon,” Ainura said. “We only receive gifts for our children for the New Year. We do not have any benefit from the union at all. ”

Kyrgyzstan’s medical workers’ trade union represents some 80,000 people, who each monthly contribute one per cent of their wages.

Out of this sum, 70 per cent is allocated to the local union offices and 30 per cent goes to regional bodies and the central committee.

Naken Saaliev, the head of the union’s central committee, said that most of the national revenue went towards supporting the annual summer camp for the children of medical workers.

“We spend a lot of money on repair work in the camp, on paying salaries to camp staff,” he said. “Currently, the camp is not operating, due to the quarantine. But despite this, we pay salaries to camp staff. In addition, we have students who study at the Kyrgyz state medical academy, to whom we provide annual scholarships.”

He did not specify how much money the union received every month.

According to the National Statistical Committee of Kyrgyzstan, as of January 2020, the average salary of health and social welfare employees amounted to 10,399 KGS (129 US dollars). If 80,000 health workers, who are members of the trade union, contribute one per cent of their average salary each month, this would amount to 8.24 million KGS (102,557 dollars) every month or 99 million KGS per year (1.2 million dollars).

Cholpon Dzhakupova, who heads the Adilet legal clinic, said that the union could have moved to make up for any deficiencies in the government safety provision.

“Why do doctors get infected? Because they were not provided with the necessary medical clothing,” she told IWPR. “While the state is seeking the necessary funds for the medical sector, a lot of time passes. The medical trade union could allocate money from its budget for now, equip the medical staff with all necessities and not waste precious time.”

Human rights activist Anara Dautalieva believes that trade unions were afraid to openly support doctors and risk presenting themselves in a bad light before the government.

“The trade union is a big force. Such associations should primarily protect the rights of doctors and convey their aspirations to those in power.  Now doctors are already afraid even to say something,” Dautalieva said.

Feeling betrayed by their union, medical staff are turning to human rights defenders for help.

“Doctors contact us anonymously,” Dzhakupova said. “In such cases, we can only help them with consultations, since we cannot send applications from anonymous authors to the relevant authorities. But we are not afraid, and the union is afraid. Why do we need such a union? It’s necessary to make the trade union work.”

The Forum of Women Members of Parliament, together with independent lawyers, have developed a draft law that aims to protect the rights of medical staff working amid a state of emergency. The bill has been presented for public discussion.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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