A Polish student in a coronavirus epicentre: ‘If ignorance could fly, it would be an astronaut’

By Paulina Gozdalik

Streets once filled with crowds now seem deserted. Students worrying about their future, workers that span the professions losing jobs, people dying alone without anyone to hold their hands. It’s our reality right now, and it’s hard to bear with the situation we find ourselves in.

Despite the tragic news coming from every direction, there are glimmers of the positive to uplift the soul. The pollution level dropped, water in Venice is so clear that you can see straight to the bottom, people are helping the lonely or the sick, there is crowdfunding for hospitals. But, overall, it’s been a tough time for all.

We have vast stretches of information online, which has its good and its bad. We can actually pursue studies online, buy groceries if you’re lucky enough to live in the city, watch Netflix for hours and not get bored – all via the internet. But the internet has its flaws, sometimes very deep flaws. There are plenty of websites where we can find information about the coronavirus, but how can we differentiate valid news from misinformation, or even outright lies? It’s not always easy. Sadly, there are idiots determined to take advantage of people during this pandemic.

Studying in Italy during the pandemic

Amid all the uncertainty, amid the information turmoil and mixed messages, one evening I came across an Instagram account, a gem of a discovery. A young woman was sharing research about the virus and explaining a lot of things which normally are hard to understand for your typical person. So, I clicked “follow,” thinking I might have finally found a solid and reliable source of information.

Anna Cykowska, 25, is a Polish medical student, originally from Kraków, currently studying in Turin, Italy. She finished her first degree in Liverpool, England, getting a BSc degree. She wanted to continue her education there, but, unfortunately, the politics of Brexit got in her way; she wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay there without some kind of student financial aid. Studying abroad has always appealed to her, so she began to look for a Plan B. “I always knew I’m going to study abroad,” she says. “It’s a valuable experience, which broadens your horizons. It’s a different culture, you learn new languages. If there is an option to study abroad – why not?”

She now lives in one of the countries most affected by the coronavirus. She has little interest in fame or popularity, but believes it’s serving the public good when someone bumps into her Instagram account, rather than listen to some ranting know-it-all without any medical background, who just might be repeating rumours and writes out of ignorance. I’ve seen so much misinformation written by some celebrities that I got a headache from it. Her words were, indeed, a breath of fresh air, maybe even a life preserver.  

Anna started researching the coronavirus because she studied similar viruses in Liverpool. She started sharing the information she had, but never thought people would be all that interested. She knows that normally most everyone is looking for some short, simple answer rather than reading a long text on the latest research. She had worked at the Liverpool School of Tropical Research, which is the oldest tropical medical school in the world. Her research focused on the flu vaccine: she helped with clinical trials; she was responsible for signing up volunteers and explaining how clinical trials work. 

She is now in Turin, Piemonte region in the north, where the coronavirus cases have been rising to ever frightening levels. When I ask her how she feels about living in an epicentre of the pandemic, she says that she doesn’t actually feel it and it’s a strange experience; she doesn’t have any human contact except with her boyfriend.

“Even if you see people passing on the street, you don’t talk to them – it’s surreal.” Fortunately, she lives close to a dog park so she’s able to walk her dog and get some fresh air. But, as with many of us, she misses those simple things, such as going for a run in the park. What she notices, though, it’s that many people are starting to appreciate the little things in life, simple activities, even just leaving the flat.

The dilemmas of a student

Anna Cykowska is a person you can rely on if you want to read up on the coronavirus backed by solid scientific research. Most important, her writing has a human face to it. It’s not a maze of medical gobbledygook.

Even though she is seemingly a walking encyclopedia on the topic, she presents herself like anyone among us, approachable, humble, friendly, with a smile. She admits she needs to unplug more. A person has to. “I need more unwinding and relaxing,” she confides. “I don’t have lectures. My professors are either fighting for their lives or other people’s lives. It does affect me in a way – I keep on thinking, if I miss the semester and have to repeat it next year.”

Students around the world have the same concern: will we have to redo the semester? It’s hard on everyone, because we truly are missing out on our education right now. How are we going to pass our exams? Can a normal exam be given under such circumstances? Would it even be fair? No one has the answers yet. Stories abound of some teachers abandoning students, ignoring messages, having their hands tied. Of course, some instructors are working hard and trying their best to provide the students with proper lessons. It’s a mishmash and a mess, everywhere. And, as Anna notes, even the instructors are overwhelmed and beleaguered.  

“One of our professors recorded his lecture just before admitting himself to the hospital, so we can learn the topic,” she says. “I think about them and their families.”

A lot of us also worry about that scholarship. A good number of students rely on it to cover their expenses. That aid is crucial for academic success and future career choices. Anna is part of that group, and she’s worried. “If I don’t get a scholarship, I won’t be able to study in Italy,” Anna admits.

A need for bravery

Her thoughts drift to Poland. The situation in Poland is worrisome, since reports suggest we don’t have the medical resources that Italy enjoys. In Poland, medical students are expected to help out in hospital, whereas in Italy students are not allowed. They don’t do extra volunteer jobs in hospitals there because the general feeling is that they are not properly trained. “We don’t have enough PPE” – Personal Protective Equipment.

The students are not always qualified to be so close to such a dangerous situation, she explains, and there is the possibility a student could do more harm than good. Nevertheless, she salutes the Polish medical students who are, arguably, proudly serving their community, serving their country. “Polish students are really brave and are helping a lot,” she adds. There are risks, she says, and possible ethical issues involved when students are expected to volunteer so close to the frontlines of this pandemic. But, understandably, this is an emergency, and emergency measures are sometimes called for.

The growth of infected people in Poland seems to be smaller than in Italy, but we should not let down our guard. There aren’t enough tests and resources, and a lot of people are not always added to statistics, because either they are reportedly told to stay home and only go to hospital in case their condition worsens. There have also been reports that some deaths were not officially recorded as being caused by COVID-19.

Adequate documentation has often been an issue everywhere, which is only adding to the problems in dealing with the crisis in country after country. The situation has become so dire in Italy that they now test postmortem. It’s been said there is a lot to be learnt from the Italian experience. Anna knows first-hand.

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Podczas praktyk w Polsce (2 razy) miałam moment aby przyjrzeć się pracy lekarza w Polsce. Żeby dać Wam pełny obraz sytuacji: wcześniej odbywałam kilkukrotne praktyki w NHS (w Wielkiej Brytanii) i pracowałam na oddziale jako wolontariusz. We Włoszech odbywam praktyki w kilku miejscach, aktualnie na oddziale chirurgii ogólnej i onkologicznej. Obecnie mam najlepsze porównanie Włoch do Polski, niemal w skali 1:1 ponieważ w Polsce odbywałam praktyki w szpitalu o mniej więcej tej samej wielkości i takim samym oddziale. Zanim powiem Wam o tym co sama zaobserwowałam (co jest w 100% moją subiektywną opinią), zadałam sobie trochę trudu żeby popatrzeć na fakty. W Polsce według [1] na 1000 mieszkańców przypada 2.4 lekarzy, natomiast we Włoszech 4.0 lekarzy. Dalej: na 1000 mieszkańców przypada 5.1 pielęgniarek/pielęgniarzy, we Włoszech 6.7. W Polsce przeznaczamy 4.5% PKB na ochronę zdrowia (jedno z najniższych w UE), we Wloszech jest to 6.5%. Następnie – w Polsce mamy bardzo wysoki wskaźnik wizyt lekarskich (ile razy w ciągu roku pacjent umawia się na wizytę u lekarza) – jest to aż 7.6, co jest na podobnym poziomie do Belgii, czy Holandii, które mają znacznie większy udział PKB na ochronę zdrowia. Mamy również jeden z najwyższych wskaźników zbędnych przyjęć do szpitali z powodu chorób przewlekłych (za nami jedynie Węgry i Litwa) co oznacza że system jest źle zorganizowany i mało efektywny. W Polsce z całej UE jesteśmy również na 3cim niechlubny miejscu, gdzie na raka umiera najwięcej osób (237/100.000 dla Polski, 194/100.000 dla Włoch) i jest to również główna przyczyna śmierci zaraz po chorobach układu krążenia. Zerknęłam również na wskaźnik przedwczesnej umieralności [2]. Okazuje się, że i tu przodujemy ponieważ we Włoszech przedcześnie umiera 3.3k osób na 100.000 mieszkańców. W Polsce przedcześnie umiera niemal 2 razy więcej osób (6.4k) co jest również jednym z najwyższych wskaźników w UE. Z całej UE mamy również najdłuższe kolejki nie niektóre zabiegi i jedne z najdłuższych kolejek ogółem [3]. Dla porówniana, we Włoszech czeka się mniej więcej tyle samo co w Danii. We wszystkich statystykach związanych z publicznym systemem ochrony zdrowia wypadamy źle. ⤵️

A post shared by Anna | Studentka (@medicine.italy) on

‘It all started with ignorance’

We are obliged to stay at home. Some people still don’t get it, though. They socialise while shopping, organise family picnics, meet with friends. The more they go out, the bigger chance the virus will be in circulation for a longer period of time. “This time you can really kill someone by just going outside,” Anna says, adding, “ if ignorance could fly, it would be an astronaut.” In many ways, people like Anna are also at war against ignorance. But, she advises, it has never been easier to save lives: you just need to stay home, or if you have to go out, practice social distancing.

As she insists, and word is starting to sink in everywhere, it has not just been the elderly who are dying. More and more young people, teenagers included, tragically, have also died from this virus. We all should be cautious; no one is truly safe during this pandemic. If you think if you’re young, healthy, and safe, and precautions aren’t for you, you couldn’t be more wrong, Anna says. What’s more, research shows that even if you recover from being exposed to coronavirus, you could be plagued with health issues in the future. “We still don’t know the full spectrum of the complications that can arise after the disease,” she went on. “Research is showing heart damage, fibrosis in the lungs; you can have really long-term complications and consequences.”

This virus doesn’t discriminate, as many experts warn. We are in this fight together, no matter if you’re young, old, rich, or poor, no matter your cultural background.

‘Lesson to be learnt’

The world after the pandemic will be a very different place. The economy, undoubtedly, will be affected. Unemployment is expected to be quite high and our lives will probably change. It’s okay to feel anxious about the future. You’re not alone. We may also see the world around us very differently, and demand change. “Once the crisis is over, people will see what happens if you have underfinanced the healthcare system, and you pay as little as 2,500 złoty” – a month – “to a diagnostician in a lab, which is less than what cleaners earn by cleaning the same lab,” Anna says. “The system has to be modernized.”

We all want to know when this crisis will be over. Experts don’t have the answer yet. There are several scenarios, which Anna took me through. The coronavirus may disappear on its own, but because the virus is quite infectious, it is not a likely scenario. Another possibility  is that the summer weather will dampen the outbreaks, but not because of the high temperature, but because of the UV rays from the sun which are able to inactivate the virus . Maybe it will stay with us, and at some point we could get what is called herd immunity, which means that we will reach the point where about 60% of the population will have been infected; the virus wouldn’t be easily passed on to another person, as most of us would be immune to it, hence it would no longer be able to cause large outbreaks. But researchers are still not sure how long the antibodies will protect us. The last possibility is that there could be another wave of coronavirus in autumn.

The end of the unknown

For the time being, the best defense could very well be that bar of soap. Remember to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. It can be the cheapest soap – it will do the job. And do it regularly. Don’t touch your face; don’t leave your home unless you have to. “Pay attention to your mental health,” Anna warns. “By taking care of yourself, you’re taking care of the others.” All we can do is to support our doctors and other healthcare workers, and keep spreading the awareness. If you have extra face masks, donate them to the hospitals. Use cloth, home-made masks to cover your nose and mouth. If you use them, you really need to know how to put it on and off your face (you can find proper instructions on YouTube or WHO website), and if possible – wash them in 60-to 90-degree water. Maintain that recommended social distance when going out.

While sitting at home, maybe grab a good book like “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, an uplifting look at how we see the world. There’s still a lot of good out there. Trust experts, not celebrities, and visit, for example, the World Health Organization’s website to get some valid information. A reliable, well-establish news source wouldn’t hurt, either. And, of course, check out Anna on Instagram. She speaks our language, straight to the point, in digestible doses.

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[stare zdjęcie] Sytuacja powoli się stabilizuje, widać powoli światło w tunelu – chociaż jeszcze daleka droga. Nie wiem co z całym miesiącem zajęć, który straciliśmy. Myśle, ze wszelkie plany na lato żeby robić praktyki w Szwajcarii legły w gruzach. Narazie muszę się skupić na egzaminach i na tym żeby nadganiać ten materiał we własnym zakresie. Nie sadze żebyśmy byli w stanie nadrobić te zajęcia z wykładowcami. Trzeba się z tym pogodzić i zacisnąć zęby – pamiętając, ze wykładowcy albo ratują życie pacjentów albo sami są pacjentami. Przerzucenie całego systemu edukacji online jest wyzwaniem dla wszystkich – nauczycieli, studentów i uczniów. Stwierdziłam, ze skoro tak wiele planów mi się posypało, to przynajmniej będę robić z lekcje z siostrą – żeby umiała się uczyć, chciała się uczyć i rozumiała czego się uczy. Będziemy sobie robić materiał do konkursów kuratoryjnych z chemii, biologii i fizyki. Myślałam przez chwilę czy by nie udostępnić wszystkich lekcji za symboliczną kwotę, ale po przemyśleniu sytuacji, doszłam do wniosku, ze nie chce dyskryminować osób, które być może w obecnej sytuacji nie mają pieniędzy. W tym tygodniu wrzucę na dysk nasze „lekcjo-rozmowy” o tym jak się uczyć i co robić żeby zapamiętywać wszystko raz na zawsze, a potem kolejne lekcje z materiałów – jak ktoś uzna ze warto z nich skorzystać i będzie chciał wpłacić symboliczna kwotę to będzie mi miło, ale jeżeli kogoś nie stać to będzie to dostępne za darmo. Będę tam też wrzucać notatki ☺️

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We’re all looking forward to getting back to normal. Anna already knows what she’ll be doing. “I’m going to go for sushi in one restaurant, then for a margherita pizza at another, and finally have a coffee in a park,” Anna says. “I’ll go mountain hiking to appreciate stuff I can do.” Because, as we agree, all we can do right now is wait it out, and think of all those great things we were able to do not that long ago, and we, perhaps foolishly, never appreciated it enough. It’s a lesson to be learnt, for all of us.

Sources that Anna recommends:

https://ourworldindata.org/ ,