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ARGENTINA | 06-06-2020 09:19

Doctors on the alert over Covid-19 malpractice lawsuits

Healthcare professionals protest and express concern over two doctors who face prosecution at a retirement home in a town in Córdoba.

The indictment of two doctors “for spreading a dangerous disease” in Córdoba has alerted Argentine health professionals, some of whom re- fuse to work under the threat of Covid-19 lawsuits in the heart of the pandemic.

“The idea is that we should be working quietly and fully protected. We don’t want a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads with possible implications for our work,” surgeon Jorge Esnaola, a spokesman for the Córdoba provincial chapter of Médicos Autoconvocados, wh ich groups together around 4,000 of the countr y’s 200,000 health professionals, told AFP.

Esnaola was referring to the indictment for “responsibility for contagion” against the di- rector and doctor of the Santa Lucía retirement home in the Córdoba town of Saldán, lodged by the provincial Health Emergency Fiscal Unit.

The case came to light on April 10, the 21st day of Argen- tina’s compulsory nationwide lockdown. The first retirement home in the country af- fected by coronavirus, it houses 30 employees and 80 el- derly people, of whom 65 people were infected.

Following six weeks of in- vestigation, the prosecutor detected “gravely serious breaches of compliance” but the Córdoba Medical Council considers that he acted “im- prudently and with inexplica- ble procedural haste.”

The doctor could face between three and 15 years in prison for “spreading dangerous diseases” and the director between six months and five years for “negligence.”

 

“DOMINO EFFECT”

“This could have a domino effect, starting to indict doctors for any infection so no- body will want to attend patients for fear of being indict- ed,” warns Esnaola.

However, relatives of the infected at the retirement home have trained their fire against the doctor. They say that he arrived from Brazil without entering into a 14-day quarantine, instead but continued to attend to patients. There are also claims that an email has been discovered in which the doctor said that he had Covid-19.

“My grandmother was in hospital for 19 days, infected with coronavirus although luckily asymptomatic. But she did not understand why nobody went to see her. I think she died of sadness and that hurts,” says Mariela, the granddaughter of Ignacia Sosa, 87, one of the 11 elderly people who died from the residence.

At the start of the month around 1,500 health workers were among over 17,000 people infected with Covid-19 in Argentina, according to trade union sources.

 

NEITHER HEROES NOR MURDERERS

The reaction of the medical community to the indictments was corporate.

“We’re neither heroes nor murderers, we’re doctors,” read a slogan uniting the protests in Córdoba, San Juan and Buenos Aires this week, which also called for adequate protective equipment and pay increases.

The doctors regretted having passed from “applause to attempts to throw us in jail,” referring to the daily applause received by health workers although now continued by very few people after over 10 weeks of quarantine.

Ana Elisa Barbar, who advises the Red Cross International Committee (RCIC) on violence against health, told AFP that the lawsuits “could be a problem if they disre- spect the work” of healthcare professionals, who must be bound by the laws of the country where they practise medi- cine.

Aside from possible law- suits, the RCIC is currently worried about situations of “stigmatisation, harassment, intimidation and violence against health professionals” in the world, explained Barbar in a telephone interview from Red Cross headquarters in Geneva.

The CICR has registered over 200 reports of violence against health workers in several countries.

 

SCUITINY

Other doctors are under court scrutiny in San Juan Province, after a man who turned out to be infected with coronavirus was transferred to the region in an air ambulance aircraft from the capital.

The individual was a lorry- driver who arrived in the province on May 5, on a trip shared with a child who had recently undergone a heart operation. It is suspected that the man’s sister, a rheumatologist who also turned out to be infected, used her professional contacts to obtain a place on the aeroplane.

Also involved in the case are a prestigious infectious diseases specialist and the San Juan air ambulance chief, who were detained for a few hours and remain under investigation.

The rheumatologist also visited her brother in intensive therapy, despite that not being her area of the hospital. This led to the chiefs of both intensive therapy and infectious diseases at that health centre being fired although both were later reinstated.

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by Liliana Samuel, AFP

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