by Andrej Umek
Every crisis, be it economic or as the current epidemiological one, portrays and highlights the shortcomings in society or a country. Even the errors that might go unnoticed or be considered insignificant under normal conditions. In times of crisis, however, these mistakes become visible and distracting. Reasonable people are now trying to correct these in-a-light-of-the-crisis more visible imperfections, so that society and the state emerge from the crisis better coordinated and stronger. This applies to the current COVID-19 crisis situation in Slovenia as well. Undoubtedly, this crisis highlighted several shortcomings in our society, but the focus of this column will be the healthcare system.
When Janez Janša formed the current Slovenian government at the beginning of the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic in the spring, all the mainstream media reported on the fact that we did not have enough protective equipment and respirators to protect the population from infection and provide much-needed health care. Some have gone even further and predicted that the new government will not be able to procure this equipment within a reasonable time frame, that the epidemic will spread uncontrollably and that patients will not receive much-needed medical care.
As we all know, these pessimistic predictions turned out to be wrong. The government has managed to procure protective equipment and respirators with more or less difficulty. There may have been minor, insignificant slips here and there, but what is essential is that the government has managed to protect the health and lives of the people of Slovenia as much as possible. Partially due to the governments selfless work, Slovenia was among the least affected countries after the first wave of the epidemic.
The real problem is the lack of medical staff
In the second wave of the epidemic, which hit us in September and still has not ended, two things became clear. Firstly, we have enough equipment, i.e. protective equipment and respirators, and we are managing to provide the much-needed number of hospital beds in both ordinary and intensive care units with minor or major problems. I will not claim that there are no problems. A decade or more of insufficient investment in hospitals and nursing homes is noticeable. However, Slovenian healthcare can still offer a hospital bed to every patient who needs hospital treatment. In Slovenia, unlike in some other European countries, every person so far in need of hospital assistance, has been admitted to a hospital. Secondly, the problem in providing adequate care to patients with COVID-19 is the lack of human resources, both doctors and nurses. For the time being due to the sacrifices of all those affected, the Slovenian healthcare system is still functioning, but it is true, that it is at the edge of its capabilities. Therefore, the message of the second wave of the epidemic is very clear – we do not have enough doctors and nurses in Slovenia. And this shortcoming should be remedied as soon as possible, and not just because of this epidemic.
The shortage of medical staff of both doctors and nurses was already visible before the current epidemic. The latter only highlighted this shortcoming. The eloquent proof of this were the long, all too long waiting lines. These were not so much the result of insufficient funding, as the prevailing public opinion and our media claim, but are mainly the result of a lack of qualified human resources. We all know that we cannot solve this problem, at least in the short term, but this does not mean that we do not need to solve it in the long term. And in that sense, the only solution I see is that enrolment in health education programmes, at least in my estimation, increases by at least 30 percent.
The mismatched education system
After the current epidemic has clearly illustrated that our health care system does not have a sufficient number of human resources, it makes sense to focus our attention on other areas of human activities. It turns out that there are areas in Slovenia where, as in health care, there is a significant shortage of trained human resources. On the other hand, there are areas in which we have too many properly educated young people. The current epidemic has only shed more light on the problem of the incompatibility of the education system with the needs of the economy, which has existed in Slovenia for quite some time. There are professions important for our economic and technological development, for which not enough young people choose secondary and tertiary education, and there are professions where enrolment exceeds employment opportunities twice or more. This leads to youth unemployment and precariousness, which is much talked about, but the real causes are rarely mentioned. I want to shed some light on the current situation only with the ratio between enrolment in natural and technical studies on the one hand and social and artistic studies on the other, which is 1: 2 in Slovenia. In countries that have successfully harmonized their education system with the economy and are therefore more economically successful, this ratio is 1: 1 in Austria and 1: 0.9 in Germany.
The COVID-19 epidemic should make us aware of the mismatch between our education system and the economy. I am convinced that now is the time to align the education system with the needs of the healthcare, the economy and other social activities. We can help ourselves with the experience of those countries that have already successfully completed this difficult task. Here, I am thinking of our neighbouring Austria in particular. We should be aware that the current chaotic situation prevents adequate care for public health and economic development. Now that the second wave of the epidemic is, hopefully, coming to an end, it is time to act.
Andrej Umek is a Slovenian civil engineer, university professor and politician. From 1993 to 1997 he was the Minister of Science and Technology of the Republic of Slovenia, in 2000 he was the Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning of the Republic of Slovenia.