Changing the narrative: young people are key to dealing with the covid-19 pandemic

The outbreak of covid-19 came in a time of a global health workforce crisis. The WHO estimates a projected shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030, primarily in low and middle-income countries. [1] The covid-19 pandemic stunned fragile health systems and exacerbated the health workforce crisis. The pandemic is a serious reminder of the need to invest in health workers, including recruiting, retaining, and recognizing young people as an important asset of the health workforce. 

The effective response of many countries would fall apart without the vital role of medical students, young volunteers, and early career professionals. Medical students have been recruited to join frontline health workers in fighting the pandemic, with numerous countries accelerating the graduation of medical students early for this purpose. Youth volunteers, including medical students, are taking over call centers, testing sites, food delivery programmes, social assistance activities, and much more. In Italy and the United Kingdom, thousands of final year medical students were fast-tracked through their last exams to help the healthcare workforce manage the pandemic. [2] In Slovakia, the mandatory hospital testing of incoming patients would not be possible without hundreds of medical student volunteers, who organized themselves and quickly reacted to the calls of healthcare institutions. [3] Harvard Medical School asked medical students to provide voluntary support to clinicians to relieve pressure from frontline workers. [4]

We are now many months into this pandemic. We have witnessed young people contributing to global efforts to manage the pandemic, leading change, delivering care, and supporting their communities. However, they have also been placed under considerable stress, responsibility, and pressure, resulting in a significant impact on their physical and mental health. Despite acknowledging the need for students and young people to help on the medical frontline, institutions have not always appropriately supported and protected young people’s rights and needs. Working conditions have been challenging with a lack of personal protective equipment, long working hours, and unequal pay. Medical students shouldn’t be expected to volunteer without appropriate compensation for the work they are delivering and the risk they are taking. Although young people often partake in voluntary work, with many emerging initiatives and youth-led campaigns in global health, this association is a double standard that governments and institutions take advantage of during the pandemic, by perceiving youth and healthcare students as a cheap alternative to fill the cracks of the poor organization and planning of health workers in health systems. 

A new approach towards working with young people is needed to sustain and retain health workers. The challenging working conditions of the pandemic risk pushing the global health workforce crisis to a critical point. It could trigger young healthcare professionals to leave the system and hold back young people from seeking a career in the health sector, although current evidence suggests that more young people want to become doctors as a result of the pandemic. A shifting in the public’s attitude towards health workers won’t change the worsening situation unless accompanied by urgent steps taken by governments and decision-makers to invest in strengthening the education, training, and recruitment of the health workforce. An attempt to stabilize health systems after covid-19 won’t be sufficient, and fragile health systems will need much more than to reinstitute the status quo from pre-corona years. Media praise, increased support from the general public, and ad-hoc government resources won’t reverse drastically underfunded health systems, an inadequate health workforce, unreasonable working conditions, and weak political leadership. 

The covid-19 pandemic should elicit a global call to action to appreciate, protect, and support the next generation of healthcare professionals. The undisputed role of early career professionals and healthcare students in a large-scale pandemic response is just another reminder for countries to rethink their approach to health workforce problems.

Marián Sedlák is a medical doctor, a resident in emergency medicine from Slovakia, and a Ph.D. student at the Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice, Slovakia. He is the past Vice-President of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA). Twitter handle: @majkosedlak 

Batool Al-Wahdani is a medical doctor from Jordan and a Master of Public Health student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is the past President of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA). Twitter handle: @batoolalwahdani


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  3. Počet medikov v nemocniciach sa zvýšil. Pomáhajú aj napriek skúškam či štátniciam | [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 29]. Available from:
  4. Harvard M.D. students form COVID-19 rapid response teams – Harvard Gazette [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 29]. Available from: