Medical students: It is time to stop being spectators

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On July 21, 1861, spectators traveled to Manassas, Virginia to witness the first battle of the American Civil War. The rich citizenry of the Union wanted to see how easily the Confederacy would collapse against the Federal Army, giving a quick end to the secessionist slave-owning states. Unfortunately, the Union Army came decidedly unprepared, and the Confederacy won that battle, sending the spectators scurrying, as well as the entire Union for four years. If a stand had been made hundreds of years ago, proclaiming equality for all Americans and ending slavery during independence, we likely would not have had such a dire situation for the coming years.

On January 21, 2020, some 140 first-year medical students and I sat in a large lecture hall at Rush Medical College, waiting to take an assessment on what we had learned so far about the respiratory system. To manage my anxiety, I decided to look at the news, where an alert flashed across the screen: “CDC expected to announce first coronavirus patient in the U.S.” Huh, I thought. It probably wasn’t a huge deal. The United States had worked through H1N1, Ebola, and other recent global disease scares. Our health care system is deeply flawed, but it could fight those illnesses without significant disruption to our daily lives. In a sense, like many fellow residents in America, I found myself as a spectator in this battle against COVID-19. Yes, it might be hard for a while, but this fight was going to be over soon.

Instead, today, on March 28, 2020, COVID-19 has claimed more than 10,000 lives, sickened more than half a million people, made billions of people stay at home, and is overwhelming nearly every hospital infrastructure in the world. Instead of saying, “See you later,” we say, “Stay safe.” Health professional students have been told to go home, as our classes have all moved to virtual formats. Effectively, students are currently on the sidelines for this war, but there is still plenty we can do to alleviate the burden on our health care and social systems, and here are just a couple reasons how:

1. Volunteer: Are you feeling bored stuck at home? Same! If you are not immunocompromised, have preexisting conditions, or have recent travel history, consider helping out in the community! A call for volunteers has been put out by multiple organizations and institutions to help social services and hospitals during this time of need. Health professional students are putting out drives to collect PPE for their hospitals, including Manvita Tatavarthy and Karina Parekh at Rush in Chicago, while Deji Adeniyi, Carissa Ho, and fellow Columbia health students are looking to purchase PPE for the besieged hospitals of New York City. In addition, take time to donate blood at your closest American Red Cross center, as blood drives and regular sources of donation are quickly running low.

Is it terrible that we have to rely on donations and volunteers to fund and run our health care system? Yes. But for now, it’s a small task we can provide to help stop COVID-19.

2. Don’t scapegoat: There have already been multiple reports describing an increase in hate crimes and discrimination against those of Asian descent in the United States. Reports are that the G7 could not put forward a concrete statement to the pandemic since the United States government insisted on calling the disease the “Wuhan virus.” Reducing this disease to the country of origin, as well as harassing people who simply look like they might carry a virus, is not only a blow towards values of tolerance and inclusion, but also does nothing to tackle the disease at hand. Diseases, as a speaker in my health equity class once said, do not discriminate. If a lifeless organism is not differentiating how it goes about a population, how helpful is it if humans ostracize and attack distinct subsets based on erroneous assumptions?

Shut down talk of racializing the disease in your friend and family circles. If people in positions of authority propagate that idea, report them. In this pandemic, we are all together, not separate, in our response.

3. Prepare for the future: This disease, and the response, will not be a blip in the year 2020. Our response, preparedness, and the societal ramifications to COVID-19 will be discussed for years to come. They deserve a deep reflection on how the social services and health care systems in the world deal with crisis. Why does a country with the highest health care spending per capita in the world still struggle to provide basic resources to its health care personnel? How can we increase blood donations when we have regulations preventing the LGBT community from participating in the effort based on their sexual activity? The United States prides itself on global health initiatives, but in this crisis, we have not adequately collaborated with our global partners to effectively tackle this disease. As the next health care providers and leaders of tomorrow, be attuned to these developments, and be ready to propose solutions in the years to come.

It is time to stop being spectators. We are at a critical turning point in our fight against this disease, and our actions now will determine whether we stay on the sidelines, or put an effective end to the scourge of the disease.  If we want to avoid a deadlier and costlier battle for the years to come, students, and the general public, have to take steps to work together to disrupt disease transmission and increase cooperation. In the case these steps are not taken, humanity may soon be facing its own Civil War, where our societal fabric may be further ripped apart.

Adithya Sivakumar is a medical student. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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