French medical students at breaking point on Covid frontline with rise in suicides, union says

Nurses watch screen near rooms with patients affected by COVID-19 virus in the ICU unit at the Charles Nicolle public hospital

FRENCH hospital interns are at breaking point after a year on the Covid front line and a number of them have committed suicide, a union representing them has revealed.

A study conducted by the National Interns Union (ISNI) over a three-month period in 2019 found that medical student interns were working at least 58 hours a week.

But when the coronavirus pandemic arrived, the figure shot up to about 80 hours a week.

“They are on call 24 hours a day and, during the pandemic, you don’t get to shut your eyes, not even for a micronap,” said ISNI general secretary Gaetan Casanova.

“It’s too much and everyone is paying the price — caregivers and patients. Everyone is in danger.”

France has more than 300,000 medical student interns, whose working hours are supposed to be capped at 48 hours a week.

“But no-one care about that,” said ISNI vice-president Marie Saleten.

Clinical psychologist Anne Rocher added that the interns are “invisible” to most people, but in fact they are “front-line soldiers.”

Five hospital interns have committed suicide since the start of the year, the union said, which equates to “a suicide every 18 days,” Mr Casanova pointed out.

A silent tribute to those who have died was held outside the French Health Ministry on Sunday, with relatives and colleagues paying their respects to their loved ones.

The names of the interns who took their own lives — Valentin, Tristan, Quentin, Elise and Florian — were displayed on blackboards, while a banner reading: “Hospitals are killing interns. Help us to live” was displayed at the entrance to the ministry.

France entered a third national lockdown at the start of this month as Covid-19 threatened to overwhelm its hospitals.

The French death toll rose above the 100,000 mark last week as the country struggles with a delayed EU-wide vaccination programme.

Health Minister Olivier Veran met representatives of ISNI and other intern groups last Thursday to discuss the situation.

“Together, we are committed to improving their working conditions, starting with their working hours,” he said after the meeting.

But the union said that the promises were vague and nothing much had changed a year into the pandemic.