Medical students from universities across South Africa have been fighting the invisible COVID-19 enemy on the frontline. They have volunteered skills, time and services to take on different roles – despite still being enrolled for their 2020 academic duties.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a National State of Disaster in March, many university students were unsure what this would mean for them.
Among these were medical students who, although faced with the challenge of adapting to online learning, volunteered to help.
‘We Fight Back COVID’ at Stellenbosch“We Fight Back COVID” is a group of Stellenbosch University students providing a variety of services and support to health-care workers and the general public.
The university and Tygerberg Hospital staff have been mentoring and supervising the students to ensure safe, evidence-based approaches.
Fifth-year medical student Luné Smith is the coordinator of We Fight Back COVID.
“We don’t know when COVID-19 will end and what will still be needed. It’s the nature of the pandemic to be unpredictable and fluid. We must be fluid too,” said Smith.
Students have taken on many roles, from making and sorting cloth masks to working in the COVID-19 contact tracing centre on the Tygerberg campus on the national COVID-19 helpline.
They also helped with daily tasks on the internal medicine wards (under guidance), captured data for medical virology and more.
Under constant supervision, senior students assisted at Tygerberg Hospital’s COVID-19 screening area but did not see high-risk patients.
UCT student volunteer effortsUniversity of Cape Town (UCT) health science students began their volunteer effort in a similar way.
Even before lockdown started, UCT head of surgery Professor Graham Fieggen asked his surgical students if they were able to assist.
He asked fifth-year medical student Savannah Verhage, president of the UCT Surgical Society and the Southern African Student Surgical Society (SASSS), if she could organise student volunteers. Their first task would be to help with the COVID-19 Hotline at the Disaster Management Centre in Tygerberg.
“I was humbled to be given an opportunity to contribute towards the fight against COVID-19 on the frontline,” said Verhage.
“I immediately started to recruit student volunteers through a website I created called The UCT Surgical Society COVID-19 Taskforce.
‘Within the first four weeks we had over 80 students sign up for 12-hour shifts to man the phones at the COVID-19 Hotline.”
This was successful and so Verhage decided to expand the reach of the student volunteers. She contacted the Western Cape Department of Health and organised more students to assist with case and contact tracing.
More than 50 students volunteered to assist during lockdown, working remotely.
Watch a video of the UCT student experience here.
Verhage later heard the Groote Schuur Hospital (GHS) testing centre needed assistance, so she recruited more student volunteers.
“Students involved in this initiative were stratified according to their level of clinical experience,” said Verhage.
“The more clinically competent students performed the COVID-19 screening and swabbing. The less experienced students assisting with admin like fetching medication from the pharmacy, running swabs to the labs and so on.”
Verhage also helped with the GSH Ward Work initiative. In this, fifth- and sixth-year medical students could volunteer to work as part of multidisciplinary teams.
These teams put up drips, took bloods, helped with admin, did supervised clerical work with patients, counselled families, and more.
As the pandemic reached its peak, the numbers across these four initiatives grew to approximately 250 students.
Verhage said challenges included time (especially when online learning began) and seeing the number of cases soar over a short period. Another challenge was seeing the impact this had on healthcare workers and the healthcare system.
“Everyone has a unique and equally important role to play in fighting the pandemic. Whether you are a frontline worker or someone who is diligently self-isolating at home, it takes a community to fight a virus like COVID-19,” said Verhage.
Cape Peninsula University of Technology
In May, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) reported that its Emergency Medical Sciences (EMS) students were heeding the call for help and volunteering.
The students helped to staff ambulances and a temporary hospital, as well as operate telephones in the call-centre.
“We are working alongside students from UCT and Stellenbosch and high-risk nurses and doctors,” said third-year EMS student Benjamin Grant.
“We have the same mindset of wanting to help wherever we can. We volunteer for shifts far enough in advance to ensure our school priorities are not inhibited, and work either day or night shifts.”
Second-year EMS student Jamie Shrimpton was sure South Africa would “make it through” the pandemic.
“This is evident to me by the tireless hours our emergency services and hospitals are putting in, which the general public might not be entirely privy to,” Shrimpton said.
University of KwaZulu-Natal
In July, the University of KwaZulu-Natal reported that final-year medical student Kapil Narain served at the frontline. Narain had volunteered to conduct community testing.
“Having some medical training, I could not bear witness to the destruction of COVID-19,” he said.
Narain’s efforts were part of the South African government’s community screening and testing programme. This deployed community health workers to do door-to-door testing.
“I tested between 50 and 70 people a day. Most people were anxious, however, I reassured them that the process is quick,” Narain said.
“At the end of every day samples would be dropped off at a National Health Laboratory Service mobile. We would report stats and hand in forms to the co-ordinators.”
Narain joined the non-government organisation Maternal, Adolescent and Child Health Institute to help with widespread testing, where he formed part of the Northern eThekwini response team.
University of the Witwatersrand
Reports in August said students from the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences volunteered to help with the COVID-19 response.
Students helped in screening tents outside Helen Joseph Hospital. Their role was to detect if patients had COVID-19 respiratory symptoms before they went into the hospital.
Student volunteers also directed and marshalled the queue of patients attending the hospital. This meant ensuring social distancing, keeping the queue moving, screening patients for symptoms and directing them to the right place in the hospital.