Medical student working on the front line: It is good that we are experiencing a real threat

Photo: ČTK / Vojtěch Hájek

With the Czech healthcare workforce decimated by Covid-19, medical students and volunteers have stepped in to help out wherever needed –in hospitals, old age homes and Covid-19 test centres. I spoke to Šimon Kopp, one of the many students who are now dividing their time between their studies and helping the Czech healthcare system.

Photo: ČTK / David Taneček

“I am in my fourth year, studying general medicine at Charles University.”

How long have you been helping with the coronavirus crisis and how?

“To be honest it hasn’t been all that long, this is my second week and I am doing nasopharyngeal swabs at a test centre in Prague. Basically I am taking samples to be tested on PCR tests for Covid-19.”

Did you get a chance to choose where you would help – a hospital, old age home or test centre –or were you assigned here?

“I chose this voluntarily. A lot of my friends were testing already and I said to myself - I want to do the same thing. There was a discussion that we would be drafted and sent where help was most needed. However no one really knew how things would develop so a lot of students chose to start helping right away, of their own volition, rather than waiting to be drafted.”

Are you worried about contracting the virus and passing it on to your family, because the risk is there - many doctors and nurses have come down with the virus.

Photo: Jan Bachorík, Czech Radio

“Yes, I am definitely worried about that, but I pay a lot of attention to hygiene. We have ozone and sanitizers to keep the test centre clean and we pay a great deal of attention to hygiene and safety measures.”

You see a lot of people every day, who come to get tested. What is the mood among the public? Do you see anger, fear, hostility?

“It depends, some already have symptoms, like loss of taste, smell and so on, and they know it’s very likely they have Covid, so they come to get tested and then they are sent into quarantine. But then there are those who had come into contact with someone who later tested positive and they are uncertain, confused about what this will mean, what they should do, they ask themselves what’s going to happen with their work, their family…so the mood differs.”

Has anything surprised you about how this epidemic developed? About the response of the public, how disciplined or not disciplined people are?

PCR-Tests, photo: Michaela Danelová, Czech Radio

“Well, I think at the beginning people were shocked. Nobody knew what this coronavirus infection was and how they should act. Then there was a lockdown, but clearly there was no proper plan and in the summer when the restrictions were lifted people just did what they wanted to do and the result was that the infection erupted again. I think that now there will gradually be fewer restrictions and the same thing will happen. I read a study recently that predicts there will be another peak in March. So I think we will have these cycles until there is a vaccine.”

Has the pandemic strengthened inter-generational solidarity or has it divided Czechs?

“Well, this is my personal opinion, but I would say Czech society is divided. Some people think the whole coronavirus pandemic is a hoax. I met some of them personally, people who thought the swab is not just a test but that I would implant a microchip in them. Folks, don’t fall for that. This is no conspiracy -just a test!  So there is a problem with these people who think it is a conspiracy by Bill Gates or Illuminati who want to introduce a new world order. And then there are those who are listening to the scientists and doctors – which is the best thing we can do right now.”

What is the mood like among young people? Is there inter-generational solidarity? Are students helping the elderly in old age homes or anywhere else?

Photo: Michaela Danelová, Czech Radio

“As far as I know, all my peers are doing something and they don’t have to be students of medicine. They help their grandparents who are being advised to stay at home, they do their shopping for them, bring them sanitizers and so on. So, yes, I think my generation is helping those who are most at risk from the coronavirus.”

How valuable is this experience to you, as a future doctor and researcher?

“You know, this will not sound nice, but in a way it is good that we are experiencing a real threat, real risks, so that we will know in the future how we should act if something like this were to happen. So this lesson is hard, but it is a good opportunity for us to learn.”

So what did you learn?

“I learnt how to deal with a patient, how to talk to them, how to handle the situation and cope, how to deal with young children who come to get tested, and that is really hard. Also, I learnt something more from the area of laryngology doing these swabs, so that’s something practical for me.”

How do you think the world has handled the epidemic so far? Do you feel that countries have learnt from others or are we all making the same mistakes?

“I think that in Europe, and in general in the Western world, like in the US or Canada, it is good that governments are in contact with the people. There is cooperation among doctors, scientists and people have sources of information, but in the developing world or countries led by dictators that information is missing. Like in China, there were rumours about the coronavirus back in September and nobody said anything until it had spread around the world. So the biggest problem is in these authoritarian states.”

What about here in Europe? Are you happy with what you see – with the degree of solidarity? The fact that countries are sending ventilators and medics to those hardest hit…

“Yes, it was good to see European states helping each other. Also the joint research among European countries is great because it will enable us not to just help Europe, but to help countries in the developing world as well.”