Life as an International Medical Student in Ireland during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Published on Mar 31, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.
A medical student’s perspective of Ireland’s response to COVID-19 as it arrived and spread throughout the country. This is the first post in our ongoing series, COVID-19 Stories from Around the World.
In the early days of the COVID-19 (before the WHO declared a pandemic or properly named the virus), everyone in Ireland pursued normal, everyday routines. Children would go to school, adults would go to work, and we as senior medical students still went to hospitals as part of our clinical rotations. I could not have anticipated or imagined how fast things would escalate.
How did we get here?
When the first case of COVID-19 reached Ireland on February 29, a cloud of uncertainty began to form. Although the case occurred in a small distant rural town and the patient was immediately quarantined, there was still a sense of unease among the healthcare community that it was not a matter of if COVID-19 will reach the bigger Irish cities such as Dublin and Cork, but when. We knew the spread of COVID-19 in Ireland had begun, and in a classical epidemiological fashion, the number of cases began to climb, slowly but surely like the beginning of a very steep hill.
The looming anxiety further spiked when the first community case was announced five days later—the patient was diagnosed and being treated in the same hospital that my classmates and I were currently in!
Needless to say, our clinical rotations at the hospital were cancelled effectively immediately. We were sent home and told to await further instructions. At that time, our school had not made an official announcement; they were waiting to hear back from the Health Services Executive (HSE), the equivalent to another country’s Department/Ministry of Health. Nevertheless, my classmates and I had strong suspicions that all hospital rotations would be cancelled given how quickly the virus was spreading.
Our suspicions were confirmed on March 12 when the Prime Minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, announced that schools, colleges and childcare facilities will close until March 29 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. He and his government emphasized the importance of social distancing and that indoor gatherings of at least one hundred people and outdoor gatherings of at least five hundred people should be cancelled. At the time, there were 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and multiple major hospitals reported patients with COVID-19.
How has COVID-19 affected medical students in Ireland?
COVID-19 has been a tremendous source of stress for all of the medical students here, from first years to final years. For final-year students, all exams have been pushed forward by two months and are condensed into just a few days. This “fast-track” is to ensure they graduate on time so they can quickly enter the Irish healthcare system to help with the pandemic. Their formats of the exams are also altered: real in-patients can no longer be used for short and long cases. Models/mannequins are used whenever possible and there is more emphasis on hypothetical case scenarios in which the consultants, who are the examiners, test the students with difficult clinical questions.
Students in their penultimate year (such as myself) are also affected by the pandemic. This is the year when we apply to overseas clinical electives as part of our medical school’s program requirements and more importantly, to make new connections.
My friends who were initially accepted by Canadian medical schools to complete electives there were disappointed and frustrated when the schools suddenly cancelled their approved electives due to the pandemic. My friends are now in the unfortunate situation of having to organize last-minute electives at a time when many medical schools have either closed their application windows or barred entry from international students due to the pandemic.
As for the clinical teachings that normally took place at the patient’s bedside, they and all student presentations and exams are currently being moved online, but the transition is slow for some rotations. This is partly due to consultants having higher priorities with the pandemic and partly due to the fact that schools never needed to transition to online learning until now.
Despite all of these issues, the school has frequently emailed us updates regarding the COVID-19 situation and reassured us that we would not be disadvantaged in our final assessments.
How has COVID-19 affected Irish life?
I’ve visited Cork’s city centre once a week for the past month and have noticed gradual decreases in activity with every passing week. On the day that the Prime Minister announced the closures, I visited the city centre to gather basic necessities; at that time, there were still quite a few people and almost all the stores were still open. However, there was a clear sense that “something” was going on—the checkout lines in the supermarket stores were much longer than usual.
By the next week, queues to enter the supermarkets were implemented, and workers were constantly washing commonly used surfaces such as railings.
There is currently still some panic-buying but basic necessities (apart from hand sanitizer) are still available (yes, even toilet paper!) Many retail and independent stores have closed for safety and the restaurants that chose to remain open have taken extra-precautionary measures such as using gloves, encouraging the use of contactless payment, and only doing take-out (i.e. no sit-down).
There are also many signs explaining the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and why practicing social distancing is so important. For the most part, most people seemed to be following the social distancing recommendations. People still go out for exercise and fresh air, but they are aware to keep a good distance from others.
But what about the pubs?!
It’s common knowledge that Ireland has a drinking culture and that many people in Ireland frequently congregate in pubs for social events. These pubs can be very small and intimate spaces, making transmission likely.
To add fuel to the fire, at my time of writing this, St. Patrick’s Day was coming up. This was a day when pubs would normally be packed to the brim with patrons. Although the financial incentive was strong and the fact that the pub was the only source of income for some of their workers, most pub owners agreed that they could not in good conscience remain open and potentially become a COVID-19 transmission hub.
The few pubs that remained open were eventually pressured into closing when the government hinted that legal action may be taken after social media posts showed packed pubs as part of pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The government also warned Ireland’s population not to host parties in homes as an alternative to not being able to go to pubs.
So, what now?
This blog post just scratches the surface of how COVID-19 is currently affecting life in Ireland. As of today, the total number of confirmed cases in Ireland is 2,910, with many cases likely still undetected. The Irish government has increased restrictions and extended them to April 12 and will review on an ongoing basis. The number of deaths per day have increased and the HSE anticipates that there will be a peak of COVID-19 cases in the middle of April.
The Irish response to COVID-19 has been paradoxically unifying; the people of Ireland have come together by staying apart. Compliance with social distancing practices has been widespread, as many people understand the seriousness of COVID-19. More importantly, they understand and accept they have the social capability and responsibility to prevent the spread of the pandemic in Ireland.
Thank you for reading this blog. I hope you enjoyed my perspective of COVID-19 in Ireland. Please do your part by pledging to #RaiseTheLine and doing things like practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing. And remember: stay safe, keep calm, and carry on.
Stanley Lee is a third year graduate entry medicine student at University College Cork School of Medicine. He is currently studying in Ireland as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Europe.