Amid the pandemic: Health secretary denies surgical mask shortage

Maintains govt still has 550,000 in storage, has distributed 5,000 each to 11 major hospitals

​ Our Correspondent March 21, 2020
KARACHI: The Sindh High Court (SHC) sought on Friday a counter-reply from a petitioner after the Sindh health secretary maintained there was no scarcity of surgical masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, adding that the government still had 550,000 masks in storage.

A two-member bench, comprising Justice Muhammad Ali Mazhar and Justice Yousuf Ali Sayeed, was hearing a plea pertaining to the shortage of surgical masks.

The Karachi assistant commissioner informed the court that 591,000 masks were imported to deal with the crisis, of which 50,000 were for South district alone. Adding to this, the health secretary maintained that apart from the 550,000 masks in storage, the government had already distributed large amounts of masks.

The health secretary also submitted a report to the court, according to which there was no shortage of protective gear and other essentials, including masks, required to deal with the coronavirus crisis in the province.

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These commodities were being supplied to public hospitals in all districts of Sindh in sufficient quantities, the report states, adding that over 100,000 masks were still available at government hospitals. It mentions that 11 major hospitals in the province were provided 5,000 surgical masks each and 489,000 were seized during raids against hoarders.

As per the report, the commodities seized during raids were kept in a storage facility and would be distributed among hospitals in different districts in accordance with their demand.

Elaborating on the distribution of masks, the Sindh additional advocate-general informed the court that so far 110,000 masks had been distributed.

"But the media reports that there is a shortage of masks and sanitisers," responded the petitioner. He further claimed that while the health secretary maintained that masks were distributed, none had reached Dr Ruth Pfau Civil Hospital.

At this, Justice Mazhar asked him whether the petition aimed to criticise the media for creating panic. Addressing the petitioner, he rebuked, "Do you want the media to not raise awareness [on coronavirus]?" He added that the media was only making people aware of the situation.

The petitioner also complained that the quarantine centre in Sukkur was in a "miserable" state.

"Have you visited the facility?" Justice Mazhar questioned the petitioner, who replied that he had learned about the quarantine centre's condition via social media.

The court ordered the petitioner to submit a counter-reply to the parties' responses and directed the Karachi commissioner and health secretary to continue the crackdown on hoarders.

It adjourned the hearing till April 10.

Virus clearance certificates

The bench also issued notices to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Ministry of Interior and other parties over a plea challenging the CAA notification making entry into the country conditional upon having a coronavirus clearance certificate.

The court was informed by the petitioner's counsel that his client was due to return to Pakistan from the United Stated on March 21.

"He has approached the relevant authorities in America to get the certificate but his request is denied on the grounds that he never had COVID-19 in the first place," the counsel argued.

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At this, Justice Mazhar remarked that coronavirus was a global issue and he expected that several similar petitions would be filed following the notification. But then, airports were being frequented by hundreds of people daily and even if a few of them had contracted the virus, allowing them entry into the country could lead to a bigger problem, he pointed out.

Justice Mazhar stressed the need for establishing isolation centres and screening passengers for the disease at airports, stating that those arriving from abroad should be shifted to isolation wards at airports.

"A flight carrying, say, 300 passengers may have a few with the infection and that can be a problem [if not duly addressed]," he commented.

However, he said that the court would inquire of the government what measures were taken regarding the issue and directed the CAA, the Ministry of Interior and other parties to submit their replies on the plea by March 27.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2020.


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