Covid-19 exposes harsh realities and benefits of a career in public health

26 Jun 2020
Megan Blacker

Megan Blacker, a careers advisor at UCT Careers Service, shows how Covid-19 exposes harsh realities and benefits of a career in public health

26 Jun 2020

The 8pm “Clap for our Carers” ritual has been ringing out every evening in recognition of health-care workers front-line fight against the pandemic. It is intended to signify public gratitude in extraordinary times towards a sector of professionals that are generally far less visibly affirmed.  

Today, citizens are wanting to acknowledge the bravery of thousands of public health workers who step into the direct path of the corona virus on a daily basis, a virus that has reaped devastation across the globe. Whether those workers have chosen to sign up for what currently confronts them or not, their current day to day reality is non-negotiable.  

The pandemic adds a dimension that is unprecedented in South Africa’s health-care system and globally: the risk of dying in the line of duty.  Taking into account that the coronavirus is easily transmittable, that the risk of death is higher than that of the seasonal flu for those that are elderly and with co-morbidities, personal protective equipment (PPE) is part of the basic armour that is necessary for health-care workers to perform their tasks efficiently and safely. 

Health professionals undertaking community service – the compulsory year post-graduation – are currently being called upon to serve at a time when the stakes are higher than ever before, alongside their more experienced colleagues who had been grappling with public sector weaknesses linked to inequality and poor policy even before the pandemic. 

Consider what it takes to decide to embark on a career journey in the public health sector: a gruelling academic programme and vital life-long learning beyond qualifying; a compulsory year in community service before you can practise as an independent health professional, often far removed from friends and family; non-negotiable shift work or weekend work to contend with.  

Despite this, thousands of prospective students apply to universities’ health science faculties annually, where few are accepted into the health professional undergraduate programmes. Reasons for choosing a public health sector career are varied: in some cases, excellent academic records have opened up the option, in others the desire to help people has been a driver. Some have a romantic view about being a doctor that have initially been shaped by well-scripted television series. There are those, too, that believe that they have been “called” into the profession.

Working in the public health-care sector calls upon skills that include communication, observation, logical reasoning and decision-making. In addition to skills, personal attributes such as empathy, compassion and commitment to serving public good are as important. These skills and attributes are both vital to public health professionals’ pandemic response.  

Very few prospective students who apply to health science faculties have considered the everyday context of providing a public health-care service in a developing country. Even fewer have considered the personal skills that are called upon to do so in a country that is one of the world’s most unequal.  

It is often only once students are exposed to the clinical platform where they get to apply their theoretical knowledge that there is a more accurate realisation of their future working environment. With the pandemic in full force, this has never been more apparent. Yes, health services are constantly exposed to grave challenges, but public health care experiences globally with Covid-19 is unprecedented.  

Could this historical event boost interest in the career path of becoming a public health-care professional?

While it may be the case that empathy, compassion and a commitment to doing good leads public health professionals to put themselves in the direct path of a global threat such as the virus, considerably more than nightly applause is called upon to ensure that this career pathway remains attractive to aspiring students.  

Ritual public gratitude is one thing, implementation of safe, healthy public health-care working conditions is quite another. Addressing long-standing failures in this area is urgent in the current context in order for all to play their part in the pandemic, and that effort must continue beyond the pandemic.  

Adequate personal protective equipment, improved remuneration and working environments before and beyond the current crisis response is essential to ensuring the safety of health professionals into the future. 

Going beyond the 8pm applause will also affirm for those who are considering choosing this career pathway that, on a positive note, the pandemic has decisively ensured that their commitment and service is widely and tangibly recognised and appreciated.  

* Based at the UCT Careers Service, Megan Blacker works as a Careers Adviser primarily serving the Health Sciences Faculty. As a UCT clinical educator, she has worked in diverse public health environments in South Africa and in the UK. She has also served as a Facilitator for Professional and Health Professional courses at UCT.

STORY: Megan Blacker
PHOTO: Fuad Abrahams