LAHORE - The Pakistan Psychiatric Society (PPS) has urged the government to ensure the safety of mentally ill prisoners during the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 “Mentally ill patients often have underlying diseases that make them more susceptible to the virus. Prisoners with mental illnesses cannot always understand and follow instructions clearly. They may not be able to maintain personal hygiene by washing their hands properly or taking precautionary measures,” PPS President Dr Muhammad Iqbal Afridi and General Secretary Dr Mian Mukhtar ul Haq Azeemi said in its statement.  “Moreover, they might not be able to identify symptoms or express themselves to seek medical attention.”

The PPS noted that according to official figures there were at least 600 mentally ill prisoners in jails across Pakistan. These prisoners were at great risk of contracting Covid-19 due to their compromised immune systems, the statement said. The PPS cited the example of South Korea where at least seven mentally ill patients died after an outbreak of Coronavirus in psychiatric wards of two medical facilities. The PPS officials said that Pakistani prisoners were an exceptionally vulnerable class, living in grossly overcrowded prisons in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. The PPS officials noted that in light of a prisoner testing positive for Covid-19 at Camp Jail, Lahore, there was an urgent need to take extreme measures and stem the further spread of the virus.

Sarah Belal, Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan, adds: “In a time like this, keeping mentally ill prisoners behind bars exposes them to extreme risk of contracting the virus and even dying as a result of it. She cited the example of Kanizan Bibi, a paranoid schizophrenic, who had spent over 30 years in prison and of Imdad Ali, who was so mentally ill that he needed constant care round the clock.

She also cited the example of Khizar Hayat, another schizophrenic prisoner who spent over a decade and a half on death row, died last year after contracting viral encephalitis in prison because he was too mentally ill to tell his symptoms. She said that the state must ensure the safety of such patients either by releasing them to the care of their families or transferring them to mental health facilities.