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City facing shortage of personal protective equipment

By M. Waqar Bhatti
February 07, 2020

The News has learnt that amid the threat of a novel coronavirus outbreak in Karachi due to the arrival of hundreds of Chinese nationals and Pakistanis living in China on a daily basis, the city’s wholesale medicine markets and pharmacies are facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by doctors, paramedics, nurses and common people to protect themselves from extremely infectious and contagious diseases.

“Two most preferred masks by the doctors and paramedics, N-95 and N-100, are not available in the market. With extreme difficulty, they are available in a limited quantity at rates 10 times higher than their original prices as importers and distributors have either exported them, sold to Chinese nationals or they are hoarding them to get better prices if there is an outbreak in Karachi too,” Muhammad Shahid, a paramedic and ward-master at a public sector hospital, told The News on Wednesday.

Federal health and investigative agencies claimed that a nexus of importers and distributors of medical equipment and supplies and officials concerned was responsible for the “artificial shortage” of the personal protective equipment and other supplies, he said and added that situation was being closely monitored by the national security agencies.

Being the commercial hub of Pakistan, Karachi imports surgical equipment and protective gear from abroad and then it is supplied to the rest of the country, including cities of interior of Sindh, but due to apathy on the part of the provincial drug officials, most of the personal protective equipment is either not available at all or being sold at exorbitant rates, making it out of the reach of people.

The health official said that as most of the personal protective equipment is disposable and should be discarded after every time a patient is visited by doctors and paramedics, these items are quite cheap and affordable, but after reports of the coronavirus outbreak in China and its possible spread to Pakistan, importers and distributors have already made millions by either exporting them, selling them to Chinese people who are collecting the personal protective equipment from the entire world or keeping them in their stores to get better prices in the days to come.

“Some literate people have already started buying the personal protective equipment for their families, but unfortunately disposable items like gloves, marks, overalls, face shields and other items are not easily available in the market. If somebody is selling these items, they are being sold extremely exorbitant rates,” he added.

For instances, a box of disposable surgical masks, which used to be sold at Rs80-90, is now being sold at Rs250 to Rs300, while a box of N-95 and N-100 masks, which were easily available for a few hundred rupees, are now being sold for between 1,200 and 1,500 rupees, in the market, the paramedic added.

Officials at various public and private hospitals in Karachi have also complained of the unavailability of the personal protective equipment in the market, saying they were quite worried about the safety of their healthcare providers in case of an outbreak, as in addition to personal protective equipment, many other necessary reagents and products used for diagnosis and treatment are also being hoarded and overpriced by the suppliers.

“After learning that hospitals and health facilities are in need of PPE and other equipment, suppliers have either made them unavailable or asking for hefty prices for their availability,” says Dr Muhammad Saeed Khan, a pathologist and professor of infectious diseases at the Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) Karachi.

He also blamed the provincial drug officials for the artificial shortage and increase in the prices of personal protective equipment, saying either they were so naïve that they were not aware of the situation or they were part of this scam, earning at the cost of people’s lives.