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Surging COVID-19 Cases In Pakistan Overwhelm Hospitals

NOEL KING, HOST:

Cases of COVID-19 are going up fast in Pakistan. There are nearly 150,000 today, and the math suggests it'll be more than a million by July. Hospital beds are in short supply, and doctors are facing threats from angry patients. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Last week, Zain Tafneesh's (ph) family drove from hospital to hospital trying to find a bed for her grandfather. He's got COVID-19.

ZAIN TAFNEESH: We were helpless. We were begging. Imagine that old man was in the car crying for oxygen, and the hospitals were showing no mercy.

HADID: Finally, her grandfather called a powerful friend in the army who got Tafneesh's grandfather into a hospital that had initially turned him away. And he's lucky. Listen to Dr. Ammara Khaled (ph), who works in a large public hospital.

AMMARA KHALED: I get so many messages every day, and those people are asking me if there are any beds available in hospital because all of the hospitals are full.

HADID: She says her hospital's been overwhelmed since the lockdown was loosened in May. The prime minister, Imran Khan, argues that most Pakistanis who are poor can't afford to stay home, and he won't consider another lockdown. But a dozen doctors we spoke to say that public hospitals weren't ready for the surge.

Dr. Khaled says they're scrambling to find beds for COVID-19 patients. They struggle to procure oxygen. Forget about ventilators.

KHALED: Ventilators are out of question. That - they're only given to those people who have some link to some senior official or some political person.

HADID: She says it leaves her, as a doctor, with one terrible option.

KHALED: Observe the patient and see them dying, I guess.

HADID: Government officials have played down the shortages, like Dr. Yasmin Rashid. She's the health minister for the province of Punjab. It has a population of over 100 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YASMIN RASHID: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Here she is speaking last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASHID: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says beds and ventilators are available everywhere. Those sorts of claims, other doctors say, put health workers in danger.

SAMRA FAKHAR: When the public comes into a government hospital, in their head, the idea is that everything's going to be available the way these ministers and everyone tells them on TV. You know? So you can imagine all that frustration that the people have.

HADID: That's Dr. Samra Fakhar. She works at a large public hospital in northern Pakistan.

FAKHAR: They take it all out on doctors, sadly. And I think the root cause of this is because they're given false hopes.

HADID: And some are attacking doctors.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Crosstalk).

HADID: Like this incident in Dr. Fakhar's hospital - it was partly captured on video. Angry relatives smashed up the lobby after they were told there was no space for their patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Crosstalk).

HADID: Health workers say they're also being attacked by families after their loved ones die of COVID-19 because of conspiracy theories that are being spread on WhatsApp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAUKAB NOORANI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Like this one by prominent cleric Kaukab Noorani.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOORANI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He accuses doctors of killing patients and falsely claiming they died of COVID-19. Dr. Fakhar says her hospital is already working at half capacity because so many of her colleagues have COVID-19. She says the government must order another lockdown.

Her prayers may have been partially answered. On Tuesday, the federal government announced temporary localized lockdowns in parts of 20 cities across Pakistan that are seeing surging numbers of COVID-19 cases. The hope is those lockdowns will buy the health system more time.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "THOUSAND-HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.

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