COVID 19: Interview with Dr Sylvie Pool on staying grounded in the midst of lockdown in world’s second worst affected country | 12 June 2020
‘I have learnt an enormous amount with respect to understanding the wider set of factors and systems that shape conditions of our daily lives’
Seychellois doctor Sylvie Pool spoke to Seychelles NATION to give an account on completing her master’s degree while being in partial lockdown in the United Kingdom since March.
The following is the interview with Dr Pool.
Seychelles NATION: Can you tell us about your professional background and the MSc you’re currently completing in the United Kingdom (UK)?
Dr Sylvie Pool: I am a doctor (physician) employed with the department of health. I have been practicing clinical medicine for the past nine years, predominantly in the UK where I originally trained, as well as in Singapore and recently the Seychelles.
I am also the former chairperson of the doctors association, ‘Doctors 4 Doctors Seychelles’, which was set up to support doctors in their professional development and to champion projects that seek to improve patient care.
At this point, I want to acknowledge the hard work of my colleagues (especially the current chairperson, Dr Vanessa Lesperance) for their dedication and commitment to improving the welfare of doctors and other healthcare workers in Seychelles, and for the exceptional work that the association has been doing to assist with efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
I left Seychelles in September last year to pursue a master’s (MSc) in International Health and Tropical Medicine (IHTM) at the University of Oxford on a Chevening Scholarship. The course aims to develop a thorough understanding of the major global health issues, particularly within resource-limited contexts and explore potential sustainable solutions to these.
I have learnt an enormous amount during the past 10 months especially with respect to understanding the wider set of factors and systems that shape conditions of our daily lives, and how these act together to impact on the health of individuals and communities.
Having this broader view of health and understanding how the context of people’s lives determine their health, has helped me appreciate the need for partnerships and intersectoral action to engage other sectors (e.g. education, finance, employment etc) in addressing these structural challenges and creating healthier environments.
As doctors, we often feel that our role is confined to clinical interactions in clinics and hospitals, but we are in fact well positioned to support our patients in dealing with the wider social challenges that contribute to the diseases that we have been trained to treat.
This can be achieved by clinicians actively partnering with local non-government organisations (NGOs) and public health on collaborative community-based interventions and initiatives. The Women’s Health-a-thon organised last year by the Soroptimist Club in partnership with the doctors’ association with the support of the US embassy is a great example of this.
Alternatively, getting involved with community health planning or simply speaking out to advocate for social change, are other ways in which doctors can engage and address these social determinants of health.
Engagement on this level, can have far-reaching effects beyond what can be achieved by focusing on clinical care alone.
The knowledge and skills that I have gained during my time here at Oxford have convinced me that moving towards this model of integrating public health within clinical practice, and a strong focus on evidenced-based policies and interventions is the way forward in addressing the structural challenges we face in Seychelles and I hope to explore this further upon my return home.
Seychelles NATION: Tell us about the situation in the UK with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic; what are your thoughts and feelings?
Dr Sylvie Pool: To date, the UK has had a total of 286,194 confirmed COVID-19 cases with over 40,000 deaths, making it one of the worst affected countries after the US. A UK-wide partial lockdown has been in force since late March and is only beginning to ease this month.
But amid these scary statistics and the constant stream of “bad” news in the media, it’s worth remembering that, while we may feel anxious and filled with a sense of loss of control over our daily lives, there are evidence-based measures that all of us as individuals can take to protect ourselves.
What is more, such measures as having running water for hand washing or adequate housing to maintain social distancing, are privileges few can afford in communities living on the margins of society. This is a sobering fact that keeps me grounded and grateful.
Having said this, I do not for a moment suppose that Seychellois students “stuck” in the UK are not facing hardship and stress. All aspects of life have been disrupted. Fear and anxiety for loved ones back home are completely justified and worries over disruptions to studies are a genuine cause for concern.
Some students may be facing additional challenges; they themselves may have fallen ill or be caring for someone who is unwell, they may be struggling financially or may be concerned about the risk to their health of sharing communal student accommodation or for simply being in a country where COVID-19 cases are high.
I also understand the concerns of parents who are worried for the welfare of their children at university in the UK.
If I can offer some reassurance, though it has been a very stressful couple of months, with lots of uncertainty, I do feel that universities have responded quickly to the need to deliver academic and pastoral support, and to prioritise the welfare and safety of their students.
Much of the teaching and assessments have shifted to an online format and though not ideal, is vital in safeguarding students’ health and safety while enabling them to continue with their studies and complete their degrees.
Various virtual activities have been organised to support mental health and to engage students in order to prevent social isolation. My department, for example, organises weekly student briefings through virtual software to ensure continued communication between peers and faculty and encourage peer-support.
University Colleges have also been supportive in lowering student accommodation rental fees where possible and guaranteed lease extensions. Financial assistance through hardship funds have also been made available for those in need.
Clear and timely communications and an engagement with student bodies to understand student concerns have helped tremendously to reduce anxiety and uncertainty, during these trying times.
I do, however, understand individual students, who may want to travel back to Seychelles and complete their studies remotely, but I am also acutely aware of the risks this would pose to our loved ones back home. The public health authority’s decision to temporarily restrict entry to persons from the UK is not unreasonable given that the UK is the second worst affected country globally.
Until such time that these restrictions are lifted, better communication between authorities and students, with perhaps an assessment of students’ needs and identification of those students who may need extra support from government (either through ANHRD or the Seychelles consulate) would be welcomed and would help ease frustrations.
Seychelles NATION: What are your thoughts knowing that your home country is currently free of confirmed cases?
Dr Sylvie Pool: The decisive action taken by government coupled with the commendable capacity of the public health authority to adapt in response to this crisis has, without a doubt, contributed to the exceptionally low numbers of COVID-19 cases and zero deaths observed to date. Other small island developing states (Sids) can take encouragement and learn lessons from the Seychelles example. Personally, it is comforting to know that family and friends are safe. It helps me focus on my studies and other priorities.
I’m also very aware that behind the success of the management of this national crisis is a sheer amount of hard work, long hours and many sacrifices on the part of our healthcare professionals to ensure our safety and wellbeing.
It has been heartening to see the public’s appreciation for the doctors, nurses and public health workers in Seychelles, but also for those who are keeping our society running by ensuring the flow of essential services such as food deliveries, sanitation, utilities, security, and financial services among others. Things that we have previously taken for granted are now being valued and appreciated.
Seychelles NATION: How do you feel, as a doctor, not being able to work to help here at home and even in the UK?
Dr Sylvie Pool: It’s difficult to witness friends and colleagues in hospitals struggling under the enormous pressure of the COVID crisis, without instinctively feeling the need and an almost moral obligation to help as a clinician. As a full time student, this is unfortunately not possible (due to visa restrictions) but I try to contribute in other ways.
I have been humbled to be able to help with efforts back home remotely, by helping to organise donations, setting up a WhatsApp messaging group for the general public to support the COVID hotline, writing transcripts for videos and other educational materials, and trying to build a support system for doctors who may be experiencing stress or burnout. This has been deeply rewarding.
But in addition to this, and this brings me back to my earlier point about having a broader view of health; from this unique vantage point of being embedded within a department (IHTM) that leverages a vast amount of experience in advancing global health research, I have the opportunity to focus on COVID-related research to better inform policy. To have the opportunity to contribute in this meaningful way is a privilege.
Interview conducted by F. P.
Photo sources: Sylvie Pool