Russian medical students have decried a measure that requires them to work at coronavirus clinics or face expulsion. The measure, which came into effect May 1, has been compared by some students to forced labor.
“This is not volunteering by choice. Coronavirus is dangerous, and they should give people a choice,” said Alexandra, a fourth-year student at Moscow’s Sechenov University who asked to be referred to by that name.
Faced with the possibility of contracting the virus and infecting family members or face expulsion, aspiring doctors have protested the decision to send fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year students — some as young as 21 — to complete their medical training in coronavirus clinics. The decree affects students in all medical fields. This includes those in dentistry and pediatrics.
“Those who refuse to go will not get their qualification and can face expulsion,” said a sixth-year student who went by Svetlana.
Russia is confronting a relentless daily increase in confirmed coronavirus cases. As of press time, the country’s total was now at over 232,000 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tally. In response, authorities have been taking measures to staff its hospitals and expand the number of beds across the country.
However, many students say that they don’t want to be put in those conditions without allocated housing and full personal protective equipment. Others have expressed worries that sending in inexperienced students will end up doing more harm than good, and even help spread the virus further. (Related: Over a quarter of medical students are depressed, suicidal.)
“We’re not doctors yet, our task is to get an education,” said Alexandra to Agence France-Presse on conditions of anonymity. “There are fears that we will be of no use and spread the infection instead.”
She also pointed out the lack of protective equipment, and the student fears that they might be last in line for what limited supplies they have.
“There is no adequate protection, and it’s difficult to believe that if the doctors don’t have enough, they would find it for us,” she said.
An anonymous appeal from students at the Pirigov Medical University circulated on social media sites, asking rector Sergei Lukyanov to make the coronavirus mobilization “voluntary.” However, neither the university nor the Ministry of Health has responded.
Meanwhile, at Sechenov, vice-rector Tatyana Litvinova stated that working with coronavirus patients would not be obligatory and that the school would not punish any students who declined.
“If a student does not want to do it, they can do their practice in a different establishment, nobody is going to force them,” she said in a statement to AFP, contradicting what the health ministry has said.
In addition, Litvinova also said that students would be paid a salary of 100,000 rubles ($1,360) and issued personal protective equipment.
Ivan Konovalov, the spokesman for the Alliance of Doctors, said that officials have turned to students because Russia is facing shortages of medical staff.
“Healthcare reforms of the past years have led to the departure of many doctors,” he said.
From 2013 to 2019, budget cuts to Russia’s healthcare system have slashed the number of medical staff across the country by more than half. Meanwhile, since 2011, Moscow has also cut nearly 2,200 infectious disease treatment beds.
That number continues to shrink, as more than 100 doctors have already died to the infection. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to spread as the number of people testing positive has grown by over 10,000 daily for over a week.
The Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation, Russia’s treasury, has warned that the cuts have left the country’s healthcare system weakened during the pandemic.
Despite the lack of medical staff, however, Konovalov said that mobilizing students is not the solution.
“Even those in their last year don’t have experience to work in these conditions,” he said.