The CEO of one pharmacy group has implored police to respond more quickly to calls for help, after a man attacked a 17-year-old pharmacy worker
Feras Karem, CEO of the Pharmacy4Less group, has told AJP how a man lashed out at workers at Pharmacy4Less Jesmond, near Newcastle in NSW, verbally and physically assaulting them.
“The situation is a sad one,” said Mr Karem. “On Friday, he turned up at a pharmacy to get his vaccination, and he needed help filling out the form to be vaccinated.
“When you go to get vaccinated, there’s a standard form to fill in or complete, and it’s got a number of questions – the same questions get asked more than once. It’s repetitive.”
The 54-year-old man asked for help with the form, and the 17-year-old pharmacy assistant started to assist him.
“She’s asking the questions, and he turned on her, just turned on her,” Mr Karem said.
“He started hurling expletives and swearing at her, screaming at the top of his voice.
“When he turned on her like that, a few of the team came to her help and said, ‘Listen mate, just go, don’t stay, get out of the pharmacy’.
“They get him to the front door and that’s where you see, in the CCTV footage, him coming back in the door. He gets in her face, hurling swear words, punching and kicking.”
CCTV footage shown to the AJP shows the man lunging and screaming at the pharmacy workers, punching and slapping them, and lashing out with a plastic bag which contained bottles.
He also kicked staff, threw bottles at them, knocked over a hand sanitation stand and attempted to grab at merchandise, before bystanders and staff were able to close the pharmacy door, leaving him outside.
Staff are then seen comforting each other on the CCTV.
“So we have physical abuse, we have verbal abuse, we have property damage, and to add insult to injury the police were called and it took them a long time to arrive,” Mr Karem said.
Mr Karem noted that this is the third major abuse incident at the group’s stores in 2020-21.
In October last year the AJP spoke to Ahmed Ouf, owner at the Pharmacy4Less Auburn, Sydney store, who was attacked by a man who smashed a Perspex safety screen into his face.
Earlier this year a man was jailed after beating a pharmacist, bashing him 19 times around the head and face after the pharmacist declined to dispense a forged script.
“We seem to be at the centre of it – this is why when Jesmond called, my blood was boiling,” Mr Karem said.
“We’ve had a few incidents, and look at who’s the victims in this case. This 54-year-old guy has no right to go around punching people.”
He said he was concerned at the police response time, and the fact that the man had not been arrested until after the mainstream media picked up the story on Wednesday, when the attack happened Friday.
“Today he faced court, and he pleaded guilty to charges of affray and breach of the public health orders,” Mr Karem told the AJP. “He was refused bail, and he’ll stay locked up until at least October 7, when he’ll be sentenced.
“From my point of view that’s a great result: we needed a response to say one, that’s not okay; and two, if you’re thinking of doing this [attacking frontline workers], then these are the consequences you can expect.
“But my biggest worry was that the police took so long to respond, and in that time the guy was walking the streets.”
He said he wanted police to understand that, “We are in a vulnerable position: if we call you, we need you to come. We need your help.”
With pharmacists and pharmacy assistants on the front line, especially during the COVID-19 crisis, workers need protection, he said: in the form of PPE, and in the way physical and verbal abuse is responded to, as well as in regulations to help prevent it.
“If we are victims, we need to be able to pick up the phone and expect the police to show up quickly,” Mr Karem said.
“We can’t be waiting an hour while a perpetrator gets in his car and goes away – or stays, and does more damage. It’s too long.”
He urged the general public, police and decision-makers to understand that pharmacies are providing services such as COVID-19 vaccination as a community service, and are not making a profit for doing so – and that pharmacy workers are under significant stress throughout the pandemic.
“The doctors are getting paid double what we are – we’re running at a loss, doing it because we feel a sense of obligation to our communities.
“We’ve had pharmacies in our group where we’ve had positive cases in the pharmacy, and that’s resulted in closure of the business, deep cleaning, loss of trade, the emotional impact on the team who have to isolate – it’s almost like this cascade of issues that come from it.”
But stress due to COVID-19 is no excuse to attack pharmacy workers.
“One guy said to me, ‘Was he drunk or something?’ I said, ‘To be honest with you, I don’t care if he was drunk, or under the influence of drugs – it’s beside the point.
“The point is that a 54-year-old male assaulted a 17-year-old girl.
“I’m just sorry that she had to face that.
“There’s got to be a big thankyou put out to pharmacists and pharmacy assistants at this time. They’re on the coalface every day, they risk getting COVID by going to work, and you know, sometimes people forget it’s a thankless job.
“But community pharmacy keeps doing the hard yards.”
Pharmacists can contact the Pharmacists Support Service on 1300 244 910 for peer support related to the demands of being a pharmacist in Australia.
Lifeline is available on 13 11 14.
Members can call PDL on 1300 854 838 for support from a Professional Officer.