Country has 14,000 Syrian refugee doctors waiting for qualifications to be approved.
Germany’s health authorities are appealing to medically qualified migrants to help them tackle the coronavirus.
As increasing numbers of doctors and nurses fall ill or are quarantined, the shortage of medical staff is putting pressure on a usually well-resourced health service.
Government initiatives have already increased the number of intensive care beds from about 24,000 to 40,000, most of them with ventilators. Staff are being retrained and non-essential operations across the country have been cancelled.
But the health system still needs more medical personnel to care for patients, increase the levels of testing, and track down people who have been in contact with those who are sick. The Robert Koch Institute, which advises the government on public health, has said 2,300 doctors are believed to be off sick or in quarantine. But with no central collation of data, the real figure is believed to be much higher. In the state of Bavaria alone, 244 doctors’ practices have had to close because of coronavirus infections.
Match4Healthcare, a website backed by medical authorities which was created by a volunteer team of students and hackers, seeks to match healthcare workers and volunteers – both citizens and foreigners living in Germany – to clinics and care homes needing support.
The eastern state of Saxony is at the forefront of a campaign calling on foreign doctors, including the thousands of refugees who arrived in 2015, to help. According to the Facebook group Syrian Doctors in Germany there are 14,000 Syrian doctors waiting for their qualifications to be approved.
“We are keen for anyone to get in touch who is in a position to help,” said a spokesman for the medical association in Leipzig (SLAEK), the capital of Saxony. “It could be someone who does not yet have their medical licence, but is on their way to getting it,” he said. “To date around 400 have been in touch.”
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Saxony, with a population of just over 4 million, has not been as badly hit by the virus as other regions, but concern is growing. By Friday, there were almost 4,000 confirmed cases and 76 of them had died. “Right now the situation is still under control, but as it gets worse we need to prepare for that,” the spokesman said.
In its Facebook appeal the medical association calls on German-speaking “foreign doctors already living in Saxony but who have not yet got their medical licence to help with coronavirus support”.
What makes Saxony’s plea salient is that it is the home of Pegida, the anti-Islam protest movement, and the heartland of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. The AfD rose to prominence – becoming the largest opposition in parliament in 2017 – on the back of voter anger over Angela Merkel’s decision to allow almost 1 million refugees into the country in 2015.
The chancellor’s resistance to closing Germany’s borders prompted a huge backlash against her Christian Democrats’ refugee policy, with many accusing Merkel of undermining national security. Now, although the government was initially reluctant to do so, closing the national border to most neighbouring countries is regarded as a matter of national safety, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Opponents of the government’s open door policy argued refugees would be a drain on the economy and compromise national security. Those in favour said that, as the majority were young, they would help plug a growing skills shortage caused by an ageing population.
Safwan Adnan Ali arrived from Syria in July 2016. He studied general surgery in Latakia for four years, then moved to Iraq to avoid military service, where he worked as a general practitioner for a year.
Since arriving in Germany as a refugee, he has been learning the language and preparing for exams which will allow his qualifications to be recognised.
“I was waiting for the exam for medical language use, but then the coronavirus came and everything has ground to a halt,” the 37-year-old said. “When the appeal was announced … I thought I’d really like to help. I need to do something useful, and I’d like to give something back to the country which has helped me so much, so I sent off my CV immediately.”
He has also applied to help Bavaria, one of the worst-hit regions, which recently announced that doctors without medical licences would be given immediate permission to work there for a year. In recent days other states have announced easier access to exam procedures and a relaxation on qualification rules.
Adnan Ali said: “I’m prepared to go anywhere I’m needed. Although as I have my wife and one-year-old daughter in Saxony, I’d prefer to work here close to them if I can.”
His WhatsApp group of Syrian doctors living in Germany has been debating whether access to the medical system due to the pandemic will shorten their wait to enter the profession.
“I really hope this will make it easier by maybe cutting down some of the unwieldy bureaucratic procedures,” he said.
Ahmad Dahhan, 35, said when he arrived in Germany from Syria in December 2015 he hoped to be able to resume his medical career as soon as possible. “Everyone has their dreams,” he said, “but bureaucracy has made things very difficult and slow, and it has been an extremely frustrating time.”
Dahhan studied biochemistry at the University of Aleppo before training as a gynaecologist at Damascus University. “They say they are in need of doctors, even when there isn’t a health crisis, but it’s not at all straightforward to get into the profession.”
He has studied German, spent two months working alongside doctors at a gynaecology department in Leipzig, and attended courses of advanced training for foreign doctors, but since the coronavirus struck, he has been confined to his apartment.
“It is extremely discouraging to know that I could be doing something far more useful,” he said. “So I welcome the opportunity to be able to do so and hope that will help Germany recognise we can also be helpful even when there is not a crisis on.”
Germany’s health ministry said it was in the process of “investigating all possible legal options” to speed up the applications of qualified doctors, especially those who only required a medical language exam.