For foreigners on the front line in France, COVID-19 denounces the shortcomings of healthcare | Voice of america

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PARIS – Like many of their colleagues these days, Dr. Nefissa Lakhdara and her husband, Dr. Redouane Bouhalila, return home after long hours on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. They wash, put clothes potentially contaminated with viruses in the washing machine and take care of children left at home by the pandemic, marking exhausting weeks of work.

It’s a fixed endless routine, as France is fighting a disease that has killed more than 23,000 people. But while spouses, both doctors trained in Algeria, face the same health risks as their French colleagues, the return on investment is much lower.

“We love our work and we love our patients,” says Lakhdara, who works as an obstetrician-gynecologist in a hospital outside Paris. “But the system is bad, and we are trying to do it right. “

She is hardly alone in expressing such feelings. Even though the pandemic sees the nation gathering around overworked health workers – with locked-up French people cheering them on from the windows every night – it also exposes long-standing gaps in the French health system, as well as simmering grievances.

This includes those hosted by thousands of untrained healthcare professionals in Europe who work here. Sometimes known by their acronym PADHUE, they often earn less, have less security and move up the ranks more slowly than their counterparts in the European Union.

Now the coronavirus is fueling a reaction against such inequalities.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe earlier this month, a dozen French medical officials, including former health minister Bernard Kouchner, called for the 4,000 to 5,000 non-European doctors working in French hospitals are “fully integrated” into the country’s health system.

Without them, “we would be totally disarmed” in the fight against the crisis, they wrote in a petition which collected more than 40,000 signatures.

According to a union fighting for the rights of PADHUE, the first doctor to die from the coronavirus in France was a 67-year-old emergency doctor from Madagascar.

Caregivers assist a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit of the Joseph Imbert hospital center in Arles, in the south of France, on April 5, 2020.

Caregivers assist a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit of the Joseph Imbert Hospital Center in Arles, southern France, on April 5, 2020.

Fill the “medical deserts”

France is hardly the only European country heavily dependent on foreign doctors to fill health gaps – sparking criticism of the playing field and the brain drain of the poorest countries. In Britain, where foreign doctors pay heavy visa fees and health care supplements, some have also died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Germany is trying to recruit more migrant doctors to help it fight the infection, especially among the thousands of asylum seekers who arrived in 2015.

In France, the pandemic has hit public hospitals already shaken by months of protests and strikes over budget cuts and staff shortages. Although still praised internationally, the French healthcare system is overwhelmed and underfunded, according to experts.

The rural regions of the country and the Paris region are described as “medical deserts” – with a shortage of health professionals to meet needs. Foreign staff, many of them from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, partially fill these gaps.

“They do the work that French doctors do not want to do, but without recognition or remuneration,” said Dr Mathias Wargon, chief of emergency services at the Delafontaine hospital outside the capital and signatory of the petition. The world newspaper.

British and Algerian, Lakhdara obtained his medical degree in Algeria. She started practicing in France five years ago.

Since then, she has climbed the ranks but says her position should normally be higher. And, she said, “I get half to a third of what I should receive. “

Lakhdara’s husband, an orthopedic surgeon, passed a rigorous competition to enter the French system. Even so, he must first occupy an intermediate supervisory position before being allowed here.

Now, with the pandemic still raging in France, the two are daily threatened with contracting the virus.

“Personally, I have seen many women infected with coronavirus, taking samples from them,” said Lakhdara. “I put myself in danger. “

“But I’m not just talking about myself,” she adds, but also thousands of other internationally trained pharmacists, midwives and other healthcare professionals who face the same situation.

A French flag outside a Paris apartment urging people to stay at home and thanking health workers. (Lisa Bryant / VOA)

A French flag outside an apartment in Paris exhorts people to stay at home and thanks health care workers. (Lisa Bryant / VOA)

One step forward?

Legislation passed last July is a step forward, said Lakhdara and others. It would level the playing field for internationally trained doctors already in the French system, replacing the current competition process with a review of their records.

However, it entered into force. Meanwhile, a new government measure allows health centers to recruit foreign doctors during the pandemic, but only in lower administrative positions.

“Professionally, we are recognized for our skills and know-how,” said the Algerian pharmacist, Dr. Farid Slimani. “COVID-19 patients put their lives in our hands. But when it comes to bureaucracy, there is a deadlock. “

Slimani obtained a doctorate in scientific research and his diploma in pharmacology in France. But because his original medical degree was from Algeria, he is still considered internationally trained, earning thousands of dollars less than his counterparts.

Now, as a pharmacist managing medical supplies for 37 Parisian hospitals, he is plunged into the maelstrom of coronavirus logistics, traveling the world to procure items that are sometimes rare.

“It is true that there is a lot of tension right now, but it is a job that makes me happy,” he said of his seven weeks at work.

Without foreign professionals like him, he thinks, French hospitals would not be able to cope with the pandemic.

“It is great that we are applauded, it is very encouraging,” said Slimani of the night tributes to the health workers. “But the state really needs to step up its support. “

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