‘I’m a radiologist, but here I’m just the house cleaner’

Hundreds of foreign doctors and nurses in Spain are eager to help fight the coronavirus, but are unable to contribute because they lack the necessary paperwork

Yessica Moy y José Alejandro Pinto en su piso del distrito de Tetuán, en Madrid.
Nurse Yessica Moy and doctor José Alejandro Pinto, from Venezuela, in their apartment in Madrid.David Expósito

Yasmine Chacón worked as a radiologist back in El Salvador, but her medical degree has not yet been certified in Spain, so now she cleans houses in a village in Spain’s eastern region of Valencia. José Alejandro Pinto was a doctor in Venezuela, but without a work permit, he is watching the coronavirus pandemic from the sidelines in his apartment in Madrid. Lucas Ferraz, from Uruguay, treated dozens of malaria cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a nursing assistant, but he doesn’t have residency papers and makes a living doing repairs.

They are not the only ones. Hundreds of foreign health workers living in Spain are eager to help, but the hurdles placed by immigration services and the bureaucracy involved with certifying their degrees mean they can do nothing but watch the crisis unfold from their sofa.

Yasmine Chacón, 31, and Juan José Hernández, 32, met at medicine school in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. They completed their studies in radiography in 2014, found jobs at a hospital and had two children together. But the couple were forced to leave everything behind to flee the violent local gangs in the country. In September 2018, they requested asylum in Spain and now are legal residents with work permits, but their medical degrees have not been certified. Chacón cleans houses and helps an elderly woman. Hernández still has not found work. “I have applied for jobs as a cleaner, at supermarkets … I even offered to collect oranges, but no one has called me back,” says Hernández. “I need to find a job, but my goal is to work in my field of expertise.”

I am trained to work in intensive cardiology centers, I can handle infusion pumps and respirators, but I have worked more in construction than as a nurse
Lucas Ferraz, nursing aide from Uruguay

“It’s difficult to accept that we have the ability to practice medicine, but can’t. It’s hard realizing that there [in El Salvador] we were someone, but once we arrived here, you’re not worth anything because you’re just ‘the woman who cleans homes’,” says Chacón.

Confined to his home in Madrid, the Venezuelan doctor José Alejandro Pinto, 30, feels as though a war has been declared and he’s not allowed to go out and help mend injuries. By his side on the living room sofa is his girlfriend, Yessica Moy, who also can’t do anything to help even though she is a nurse who specializes in cardiopulmonary disease – a much-needed area of expertise in the current crisis.

Both Moy and Pinto want to help in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak. But because they do not have work permits, their only option is to stay at home. The couple even avoid watching television because it makes them even more frustrated with the situation. “We are staring up at the ceiling with our arms crossed,” complains Pinto. He says this ironically. In reality, the doctor is doing everything he can to find work and help fill the huge demand for health workers. It would be the first job he has had since he arrived in Spain on November 4 to request asylum.

Pinto certified his degree before arriving in Spain and he is a chartered physician in Madrid. He even attended a training workshop on how to treat coronavirus patients, but he requested asylum less than six months ago, and does not have permission to work. Lacking the proper papers, Pinto was rejected twice in the past two weeks – once from a medical center in Madrid, and another time from a senior residence. The response was: “Please send us your social security number when you have it.” “It’s as simple as they want it to be,” says Pinto. “I am just asking them to look at my record and give me a work permit.”

Faced with the shortage of health workers and the fact that more than 26,000 have been infected with the coronavirus, the Spanish government has tried to recruit medical students, retired health workers, as well as foreign doctors and nurses. The Health Ministry has promised to relax the process for recognizing specialties studied outside of Spain, and the University Ministry has prioritized the certification of degrees of doctors and nurses. More than 400 degrees have been certified during the state of alarm, which came into effect on March 15. In the meantime, the state migration office has fast-tracked work permits for 390 professionals. The Education Ministry has also certified 223 professional degrees in the last 15 days, most of them for nursing aides. This has provided some relief and allowed trained professionals to leave their unskilled jobs in call centers and as delivery riders. But hundreds of health workers are still on the sidelines.

The Health Ministry has promised to relax the process for recognizing specialties studied outside of Spain

Several ministries are considering a proposal for a new process that would allow qualified migrants, residents in their last year of training and doctors who have passed their specialization exam (known as MIR in Spanish) but missed out on a spot, to request accreditation for their degrees as well as a work permit. This process would apply to asylum seekers like Pinto, but its approval is still under discussion.

According to sources familiar with the process, the Interior Ministry wants to make it clear that the process will not regularize foreigners who are in an irregular situation, and there are doubts about just how quickly degrees will be certified, a process that usually takes six months. The Interior Ministry is not opposed to including asylum seekers, but does not want them to be specifically mentioned in the text. According to the Interior Ministry, “The objective is to give a work and residency permit for extraordinary reasons to nationals of third countries who are legally in Spain. Whether they are asylum seekers or not, it is not important.”

Many health professionals are in an irregular situation, which makes it difficult for them to join the workforce. Lucas Ferraz, a 40-year-old nursing aide from Uruguay, lives in Valencia and has been without legal papers for a year. He works doing repairs because the process to regularize his immigration status has come up against many obstacles. Although Ferraz lived in Spain between 2004 and 2012, he was never granted legal status. “I was always missing some piece of paper,” he says.

I am just asking them to look at my record and give me a work permit.
José Alejandro Pinto, doctor from Venezuela

These days, with the coronavirus crisis, he is more frustrated than usual. “I am trained to work in intensive cardiology centers, I can handle infusion pumps and respirators, but I have worked more in construction than as a nurse,” he says. Ferraz says he has worked on a military ship in Antarctica, taken part in a peace mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he treated malaria cases, and has been trained to treat Ebola patients.

“I understand that politically it could be difficult, but how is it possible that they don’t give us the possibility of helping when they are doubling shifts and infected health professionals are working?” he asks. “Here I am with degree and knowledge, confined to my home without being able to do anything.”

The Spanish Association of Venezuelan Doctors (Amevesp) estimates that there are hundreds of health professionals in Spain without work permits, many of them in Madrid, which is the main destination for Venezuelan migrants. Associations of Argentinean, Colombian and Cuban doctors have also offered to join in the fight against the virus. A few days ago, Ferraz, who does not belong to any association, expressed his frustration with the situation in a message on Facebook. He received dozens of messages from people in similar situations and created a Facebook group that now has more than 200 members. They are all qualified, says Ferraz, but most do not have work permits.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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