The coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused widespread panic and uncertainty, as people get to grips and adapt their lives to a virus about which we still have much to find out about. Despite being an important part of the healthcare service, paramedics are speaking out about the treatment they receive at the hands of citizens, despite the important health services they provide.
Paramedics around the world have reported facing widespread suspicion, and even that they are being physically assaulted by citizens who fear they may contribute to spreading the virus.
Wael Sarhan, Head of the Egyptian Ambulance Organization Employees’ Syndicate talked to Daily News Egypt about the conditions under which these “unknown soldiers”, as he described them, work.
How many paramedics does Egypt have?
The number of ambulance workers in Egypt is about 17,000, including 14,000 paramedics and drivers whom we call ambulance staff. The remaining workers are in administration. The total number has increased after the new appointment of about 1,600 additional workers last July.
How do paramedics deal with the coronavirus?
We, as paramedics, are fully prepared all the time, so we are on call 24/7. The Egyptian Ambulance Organization (EAO) periodically provides training to paramedics nationwide throughout the year. Training is provided on first aid services for both paramedics and drivers. The syndicate also provides further training on infection control, occupational safety and health, and first aid for those interested in raising their skills.
When the pandemic hit, we were ready because this is normal for us. The EAO has allocated 15 ambulance cars in each governorate, but the number of which may differ from one governorate to another, as it has now reached about 25 in some governorates, with 30 in Cairo only. The number of vehicles allocated for the transport of coronavirus patients has increased.
How many ambulances are being used for coronavirus cases compared to other emergencies?
The number of ambulances operating for coronavirus patients is 3,600 vehicles out of a total of 4,000.
Have the ambulance crews suffered from any shortage of protective supplies?
I will tell you frankly, clearly, and transparently. According to what we hear from paramedics, we do have a shortage. I have nothing to do with the data issued by the EAO that says otherwise, as paramedics are suffering from a shortage of medical supplies and sometimes contract the virus. This is why I have called to include all ambulances in the coronavirus protocol.
What do you mean by that?
In other words, I have 3,600 ambulances designated for the coronavirus, and the rest are for patients not infected with the virus. The protocol for the coronavirus is applied to ambulances and paramedics who receive glasses, shoes, boots, protective suits, face masks, and face shields to protect them from contracting the virus. Paramedics not working on coronavirus cases only receive regular ambulance clothes, gloves, and face masks, which may not be enough.
How many paramedics have been infected?
Up to this moment, I have counted 60 COVID-19 cases of paramedics and two fatalities: Shaaban Abdel Aal Mohamed, an ambulance driver in Giza, and Saleh Mohamed El Sadek, who was a storekeeper for medical supplies in Luxor and dealt with paramedics periodically.
Have paramedics ever been assaulted by citizens while on duty?
Whether for the coronavirus or before the pandemic, paramedics deal with patients before anyone else, so citizens take their anger out on them, and we come under attack on a daily basis. During the pandemic, some paramedics have also been bullied.
What measures has the syndicate taken for the families of the two fatalities?
Mohamed El Sadek only passed away two days ago, so we still have not done anything yet. For Shaaban, he died at a quarantine hospital, and his family was honoured by the Beni Suef Governor. The EAO head has also visited his family and the organisation is now proceeding with the compensation and the insurance policy plan.
Are paramedics included in the presidential decree to consider healthcare staff deaths of coronavirus as army and police casualties?
It is supposed to apply, but until now we have not witnessed anything but talk. On paper, there is nothing. This was said by the Prime Minister [Mostafa Madbouly] when he met with the Doctors’ Syndicate head, but we have not been informed. We will be addressing the Prime Minister with the personal data of the two deaths and wait for further instructions.
Do you have tips for citizens in dealing with paramedics?
The most important thing is citizen awareness and their understanding of the nature of paramedics’ work, as this is a very important factor to limit the spread of infection. The ambulance worker is under psychological and physical pressure, and he cannot eat or drink in the protective suit that he wears most of the time.
It is a suit that traps the heat, which makes things very difficult for paramedics considering the current heat waves and during Ramadan. They have to wear the suit throughout their working hours that extend up to 24 hours so they are always exhausted.
We have to ask citizens to be understanding of this pressure and the nature of the work. Paramedics only have to transport patients to hospitals where they will be treated while following certain guidelines and protocols, so if they have complaints, tell them quietly without yelling. Paramedics are directed to cases based on the instructions of the 105 hotline, so it is not their problem that the number was busy or that they picked up late.
Can paramedic refuse to transport patients?
No, we take our precautionary measures, but declining an order is not an option. We are working in North Sinai where we sometimes work under gunfire, but we still do our job.
Do you have any demands?
We made requests to the Prime Minister to raise the salaries of the EAO employees, by obtaining a percentage of the income like other bodies, even if it would be added to our employees’ fund. We also want to be included in the allowance for medical professions that the President [Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi] said will rise to 75%. The third issue is that the EAO’s budget is very large, but its distribution in the basic items is not in the interest of its employees, so we want to change that.