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Rich coronavirus-hit Western countries begging refugee doctors to come help, after years of demonising them

Countries are looking for ways to integrate migrant and refugee medical professionals [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 March, 2020

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Germany, the US and the UK are turning to migrant and refugee medical professionals to help in the fight against coronavirus.

Refugee and migrant medical professionals, many of whom have been unable to practice medicine in their country of refuge, may be called in to help strained health care systems deal with a rise in coronavirus cases.

While countries like Germany seem to be coping with the numbers of ventilators and intensive care beds avaliable as case numbers rise, they are struggling with a shortage in medical staff trained to receive and treat patients. 

In Saxony, Germany's far-right heartland where refugees were often scorned, the regional medical board is now asking medical doctors with migrant backgrounds to enter hospitals in the fight against Covid-19.

"Foreign doctors who are in Saxony but do not yet have a license to practice medicine can help with corona(virus) care," read a Facebook appeal.

Some 300 volunteers responded to the call for help, including "many foreign doctors whose licensing procedures are not yet completed, whose help is very welcome", Saxony's regional medical board reported Monday according to Reuters.

The German city-state of Hamburg launched a similar appeal Wednesday, to which it has had 1,000 responses. Hamburg's Ministry of Health said qualified migrants and refugees could apply regardless of their residency or work status, InfoMigrants reported.

'Absolutely pick up'

A similar picture is emerging in the United Kingdom, where doctors without UK qualifications are calling on the government to allow them to help treat a growing number of Covid-19 patients.

UK charity RefuAid told the Financial Times it knows of more than five hundred medics who "have fled conflict or persecution abroad to settle in Britain who are currently unable to practice".

Some of those health care practitioners had their medical exam cancelled due to coronavirus, blocking their ability to practice despite being fully qualified.

RefuAid has asked Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who tested positive for the virus himself on Thursday, to grant a temporary licence to allow refugee medics to assist in critical produces such as intubation. 

Hancock, when asked about the issue in parliament Wednesday, said he would "absolutely pick up" on the possibility of fast-tracking refugee doctors, FT reported.

"If people have worked at the last hospital in Aleppo and have been intubating patients in very high stress, low resource circumstances, these are exactly the sort of people we need right now," Tamsyn Brewster, co-founder of RefuAid, told FT

The founder of advocacy group Medical Professionals Seeking Registration in the UK Dr Hiba al Zamzamy echoed RefuAid's call.

"There is a shortage in the NHS and doctors who are able and willing to help. Why not allow them to overcome the problem of registration now, so they can be a part of this solution to the national emergency?," said Zamzamy, whose organisation represents hundreds of doctors struggling to obtain a license to practice medicine in the UK.

Cancelled exams

Iraqi surgeon Ahmed al-Qassab was on the cusp on being able to practice in the UK, with plans to sit his final stage exams, called PLAB 2, this month. But the final stage exams have been cancelled, preventing him from treating patients at this critical time. 

"I have 13 years as a medical doctor, half of them I work in Fallujah city, with mass casualties, so I am used to these intensive care situations," he said.

Syrian medical resident Shadi Shahda, who arrived in Germany last April on a visa for highly-qualified job seekers, said his language exam, needed to work in Saxony, was also cancelled due to coronavirus. 

He responded immediately to Saxony's call for help. "I am waiting for their call," he told InfoMigrants.

"I was very happy when I saw that I could do something in the country where I am living."

For doctors from overseas to register in the UK they must obtain a high grade in an English language test. 

Sudanese ophthalmologist Dr Al Zamzamy has been in the UK for seven years but has been unable to practice medicine. Zamzamy said the biggest barrier to registration is the UK's language requirements, which requires higher than native fluency.

"I became a British citizen, I am part of this community, I have a role to do. We need to be looked at as a group of people as part of this country, as part of this crisis," she told FT.

US opens up to doctors

The United States, which has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world as of Wednesday, asked medical staff working abroad to contact their nearest US embassy if they were interesting in working in the US.

In a statement published online on Friday, the US government advised foreign doctors already working in the US to consult with their sponsors to extend their programmes.

The relaxing of immigration guidelines is rare under the Trump administration, which notoriously rolled out a ban on immigrants from countries deemed security risks, many of which are Muslim-majority.

"I'm told this tweet landed "poorly" @StateDept," POLITICO's foreign affairs reporter Nahal Toosi tweeted. 

"US diplomats had no heads up. Visa services are supposed to be frozen. Calls from interested people are pouring in, so US citizens stuck abroad can't get through. And it looks like the US is trying to steal other countries' doctors," she added.

American hospitals increasingly have reported being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and 40 per cent of Americans are under lockdown orders to prevent the spread of the illness.

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