By Sameer Naik
Johannesburg – Final-year medical students across the country are afraid to return to hospitals to complete their in-service training as Covid-19 continues to rapidly spread.
But if they don’t, they won’t get their degrees this year.
Last week, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced that they would be returning to clinical training under strict conditions.
However, several students this week revealed their fears of being sent into hospitals without any planning and transparency from their universities and without their consent.
A final-year medical student who did not want to be named out of fear of victimisation from his university, believed the tertiary institutions are acting “recklessly”.
“I don’t feel it is fair for us to be there. We’re taking up space, time and resources that could otherwise be devoted to the fight but instead must go to us. Also, the hospitals are empty so what are we going to learn? I feel it’s reckless as Covid-19 is only increasing and I’m scared I will contract it or bring it home.”
His university has not briefed him on safety measures.
“There are no clear set measures. We’ve mostly received information about the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the availability thereof.
“We were notified we are due back and that if there is a Covid-19 case we will have to act as porters to take samples and fetch supplies and blood from other places and bring it to the Covid-19 case. If I choose not to pitch, I don’t get my degree. And that is hardly fair.”
His family is strongly opposed. “I’m not getting paid to do the work that other staff are employed to do. They are also afraid I will bring the virus home.
“I don’t feel comfortable doing it in exchange for my degree. There is too much at stake. But if the situation is dire and I get asked to volunteer, I will gladly do so.”
Another student, who did not want to be named, is worried about the risk she poses to her family, particularly her elderly parents.
“For us to return so soon would not make sense considering the fact that little teaching can take place in the academic hospitals as they’re filled mostly with Covid-19 patients. As it stands, hospitals are already struggling to keep up with the shortages of PPE. Our return would further complicate this.
“My family are very concerned with the risks. They understand the nature of my degree and that risks are often associated with it. However, they feel that the risk is avoidable and would prefer for me not to return.”
She added that her university is sending her back to work in a hospital without her consent. “Many of us only became aware of this through the minister’s announcement on TV.”
If she does not go back, she will lose the chance to complete her degree.
“We have been offered the option to not work, but it’s at a cost.
Like many other final-year medical students, she would have been happy to assist during the pandemic if her university had planned properly and ensured her safety.
“The current situation is not ideal. Should any of us get the virus, medical treatment would be at our own cost.”
Another student said: “My concern is that the country is in a State of Disaster and our doctors aren’t properly equipped to be teaching us in the clinical setting. We are putting ourselves, our families and our classmates at risk. We live in residence, which is not conducive to social distancing requirements.
“If one student contracts Covid-19 on campus from the hospital, many others will be affected.”
All her university has instructed her to do is an online training course on the use of PPE and asked her to quarantine for seven days.
“We are being asked to choose between our health and safety or completing our degree We are aware that we are future health professionals, but unlike employed interns, we do not have compensation nor medical insurance from any involved party.
“The university is not assuming responsibility should we contract Covid-19, yet is asking us to return to a risky environment at an unsafe time where safety cannot be guaranteed.”
This week, student assist portal Student Matters ZA, which has been providing young doctors with assistance, launched a social media campaign to highlight the current plight of medical students.
“Students have felt that, despite various requests and pleas to members of the university leadership, their main concerns have not been met with clear solutions,” said a spokesperson.
“We acknowledge the few efforts that have been made, however we are dissatisfied with the solutions brought forward as they do not meet the strict conditions for guaranteed safety.
“For example, no information has been provided with regards to who -be it the university or the department of health – will assume responsibility should a student contract Covid-19 in the clinical setting and require further medical assistance as well as possible compensation.”
They want universities as well as the department to heed their concerns.
“Universities have given us an indirect ultimatum to either return, and put our lives at risk – as well as those of our families and loved ones – or stay at home and forfeit completing the academic year and graduating this year
“All we are asking for is a well-detailed plan that mitigates the risk to students as much as possible on clinical platforms, as well as gives substantial consideration to the different socio-economic backgrounds of all individuals.”
Meanwhile, the Junior Doctors’ Association of South Africa said it wants final year medical students to continue their in-service training despite the high risks involved.
“We would like the students to complete their medical studies and in-service training within 2020 so that they can assume their internship posts at the beginning of 2021,” vice-chairperson Dr Tshepile Tlali said this week.
“We feel that there needs to be clear guidelines on measures to protect their safety.”
The health department says the training of final-year medical students is regulated by the department of higher education, led by the deans of health sciences.
“In accordance with regulation and procedures to deal with Covid-19, all health workers must be trained, then provided with PPE. They must be screened when getting into the facilities and tested if necessary,” said spokesperson Popo Maja.