Returning home to find myself in the midst of yet another power cut, I am comforted by the knowledge that my trip to purchase essentials from the local market was entirely conflict- free. Not to brag, but I even managed to acquire some loo roll without throwing a single punch, an increasingly rare achievement in some parts of the world, so I’m told.
For the past three weeks the compound in Brikama, one of the largest settlements in the Gambia, has been my refuge from the chaos surrounding COVID-19 and, while there is certainly a tangible anxiety among the locals, at the time of writing a case of the virus is thankfully yet to materialise in the country.
My four-week medical elective, an opportunity to work for an extended period of time at a hospital in a country of my choosing prior to graduation, has been as of yet largely unaffected by the pandemic (which is more than can be said for many of my peers, some of whom are currently attempting to return home from South Africa and Nepal, or even quarantined in Peru) and my time spent in the various departments of Brikama General Hospital has been rewarding and astonishing in equal measure.
As flights are grounded indefinitely and borders close, I have been volunteering in a hospital where ECG and X-ray facilities are unavailable; night-time caesarean sections are completed under the light of phone torches; and the mainstay of stroke management is “with prayers” as one local physician jovially suggested. As a result, it has been difficult to fully appreciate the entirely separate set of challenges facing the NHS when the prominent concerns in my immediate environment are so vastly different.
When I received the news that the rest of the term’s placement and tuition had been henceforth cancelled and replaced with online content, it wasn’t apprehension or fear that I felt – it was excitement. My training and that of several thousand other medical students, although not yet technically complete, means we may each be able to lend a hand in some small way. I am ready to go to work.
Much uncertainty still remains with regards to what the next few months will bring, with UK medical schools being urged to fast-track their students’ qualification and registration with the General Medical Council, but if we are to reach a crisis point capable of threatening the health of family, friends, colleagues and everyone else for that matter, that seems as good a reason as any to roll up our sleeves and get on with things to the best of our capacity.
COVID-19 is undoubtedly one of the most significant global health challenges in a generation, but historically the UK has thrived in the face of adversity, and while on occasion it may seem like we are six weeks away from instating hand sanitiser as our official currency, I remain confident that with time we will remember to do what we do best – keep calm and carry on.