by Adam Hartman

MEDICAL interns and student nurses have expressed concern for their health should they be made to assist in an emergency national response to Covid-19 cases in the country.

Health minister Kalumbi Shangula.
Photo: Garwin Beukes

Last Friday, a notice was issued by acting chief medical superintendent of the Windhoek Central Hospital Farid Zam, calling on all medical officers – professionals and interns – to make themselves available for assignment to “rapid response teams” in light of the four Covid-19 cases confirmed in the country.

The rapid response teams are part of the health ministry’s comprehensive plan to deal with the virus. The teams will include two groups working 12-hour shifts a day dealing with suspected and confirmed Covid-19 cases at state hospitals.

Training for medical staff countrywide started on Monday, which included the use of protective gear and conducting tests and treatment. Medical officers older than 60 or with vulnerable immune systems, or who are pregnant, are exempt from the exercise.

There are about 150 interns working at the Windhoek and Katutura state hospitals, according to a doctor from Katutura Intermediate Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity. The figure could be much higher when other state hospitals are included. According to the doctor, there are many who do not have contracts (nor pay or medical aid), or who are working on training agreements, with reduced allowances and no medical aid cover.

“They are risking their lives for others, so they deserve benefits. It is not just being exposed to the coronavirus, but all other diseases too,” the doctor said. “There are many in this ministry who have all these benefits, but will not treat patients. They would rather expose these young people. This is not right.”

He explained that interns, once they complete six years of studies at Unam, are registered at the Namibian Health Professions Council and undergo two years internship at state hospitals.

Those who fail will have to continue – even if it means for no pay or benefits. Several interns to whom The Namibian spoke said that being doctors, they swore an oath that they will live up to the moral obligation to do all they possibly can to help the sick and save lives.

Medical personnel are currently at the front line of the global struggle against Covid-19, and thousands have been infected with the virus in the process, resulting in many deaths.

“We do not have a choice,” one intern said. “If we do not participate, it will count against us – even if it means that in our service, we are infected and ultimately infect others.”

According to the interns, there was a time they would get full contracts with full pay and benefits, which included medical aid. That has been reduced, and now they get a training agreement for an allowance – without medical aid cover.

Another intern said the ministry also only requires them to work 40 hours per week (on which allowances are based) while the health council requires 80 hours a week.

“So we work 80 hours to get approval from the council, but only get paid a 40-hour allowance,” one explained, adding that some may work 24 hours non-stop.

“No other interns do this, considering the risk and responsibility we have. But they all agree, if they do not do it, Namibia will be in big trouble considering the limited manpower, resources and facilities available,” said the intern. Another intern said there are negotiations going on with the authorities.

“Interns are not expected to be exposed, seeing they are being trained, but things can change quickly, and this is the first time Namibia is experiencing this threatening scenario,” said another intern.

“The time is not right now to take on this fight because desperate times call for desperate measures. Let’s just hope, in the event of casualties among medical staff, the ministry will undertake for them.”

Health minister Kalumbi Shangula told The Namibian that the public health system was there for all, “unless you opt out” and medical officers should have the benefits.

“It is the very nature of the medical professional to help the sick and risk becoming sick. Doctors are also humans like others, but they have chosen the profession to help the sick,” he said. “This system is for them too.”

In the meantime, the Namibia Nurse Union Student Movement condemned the intention of the Welwitschia Health Training Centre to continue clinical allocation of trainee nurses during the Covid-19 state of emergency period, calling it “greedy, ignorant and reckless”.

“This decision poses a danger to the lives and health of the vulnerable and innocent student,” said David Joseph, the chairperson of the nurses union, who also called for the centre to suspend academic activities until the situation is normalised.

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