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The plight of final year medical students - navigating through COVID-19 nationwide lockdown

For medical students in their final year of study, the nationwide lockdown is bittersweet. Lindokuhle Ntshangase explains that while the lockdown is essential to control the spread of the virus, the level of uncertainty as to whether the curriculum will be completed this year is alarming, especially in light of the fact that all graduates will be expected to start their internships on 1 January 2021 in the Department of Health.

For Ntshangase, who hails from the rural town of Pongola, situated in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, qualifying as a medical doctor is a dream. "I went to Dingukwazi High School, which is a quintile three school. The school did not have a proper laboratory or enough books for everyone, among other challenges, so learning was very difficult. However, I was determined to make my parents proud. I was delighted when I got my matric results to see that I had achieved six distinctions. It was a surreal moment. It also meant I could apply to study medicine, a long-held dream.

"In 2014, I lost my father to a terminal illness. It was a very difficult time for me. I had wished for him to see the day I got admitted to medical school. He encouraged me to work hard so that I can be the first doctor in the family. Now, I'm uncertain as to whether I will in fact complete my degree this year."

Like many others in the country, Ntshangase's medical curriculum consists of bedside teaching in hospitals. Despite academic material having being uploaded onto online platforms, bedside teaching cannot be delivered without the practical experience. Compounding his studies is the lack of sufficient data and, when data is available, the reception is very poor in a rural area.

"The world is facing a pandemic that has claimed a lot of lives. I would like to commend the South African government for the response that they have taken to address the pandemic. The 21-day lockdown is necessary to flatten the curve, and everyone should comply with the restrictions provided. However, the lockdown has hugely affected the academic calendar, especially for the clinical medicine students. Our learning is at the bedside. There is no way that you can teach skills from reading, it needs to be practical."

At UKZN, academics are working diligently to upload all material onto online platforms. Professor Nana Poku, vice-chancellor and principal of UKZN, sent out a message to the UKZN community pledging its commitment to ensure the continuation of teaching and learning during the lockdown.

"This is an anxious and uncertain time for everyone - for our nearest and dearest, but also for the welfare of our students and the continuance of our work - and we are immensely proud of the hard, creative effort that our deans have devoted to making online delivery of the university's course materials possible. Transferring our teaching content onto virtual platforms - in common with our sister universities in South Africa and elsewhere - is a matter of urgency. Indeed, it would be managerial negligence to the extreme if we fail to act prudently, timeously and appropriately."

For Ntshangase and others in his class, the uncertainty in these challenging times continues. They are left pondering whether it would be best to leave the safety of their homes and return to the clinical settings to tackle the pandemic head on, or remain at home and try to learn clinical skills through online platforms.

Ntshangase is a member of the South African Students Congress (SASCO), and served in the capacity of the Medical Student's Residence Liaison Officer 2016/17, Transformation and Academic Officer in 2017/2018, National Secretary of the South African Medicals Students Association in 2018, and is the current final year class representative.

MaryAnn Francis