During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kazakhstani healthcare system has been facing a number of challenges. One of the most acute problems at the peak of the crisis was the staffing of medical institutions. In this period, the integration of medical education and practical medicine should be especially noted. From day one, Astana Medical University, a UNAI member institution in Kazakhstan, has been actively involved by not dividing the educational process and direct assistance in the fight against the virus.

According to its mission, the institution is one of the leaders in medical education, training competitive specialists in the field of healthcare under the principle “Education for all as long as life endures”, carrying out its activities in accordance with national and international quality standards for the benefit of individuals, the society and the Kazakh State. Along these lines, specialists from the departments of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, and Internal Medicine, provided medical assistance to patients in quarantine and provisional centers.

An awareness campaign is conducted through various platforms, to explain to preventive measures to the population, to contain the spread of the virus. Moreover, the institution held training courses for around 8,000 physicians on how to handle the crisis, and it has participated in research projects in cooperation with regional scientific centers and under the guidance of the World Health Organization, about ethics and policy guidance to support public health emergency response, and on addressing gender related issues in female frontline healthcare workers.

More than 10,000 patients have been treated at the clinical bases and medical center of the university. Likewise, university scientists, specialists in the field of epidemiology, infectious diseases, virology, and immunology are part of expert groups working on developing comprehensive measures and preparing protocols for COVID-19. Given the circumstances, most of the infectious disease physicians were relocated to work in the Infectious Unit of the Multidisciplinary Medical Center (MMC) of Nur-Sultan, the capital of the country.

Precisely, students of the university joined the ranks of physicians fighting COVID-19 and particularly those enrolled in the Specialization on Infectious Diseases have been working in an isolation ward organized at the MMC. They receive and supervise patients with suspected COVID-19 around the clock, and work also in emergency rooms. In the Infectious Unit of the MMC, residents provide with practical assistance and some are involved in a dedicated call center, where they answer daily questions related to the virus from the general public.

At the same time, 35 residents of other specialties expressed their wish to work in a quarantine hospital. Volunteers begin their daily shifts early in the morning as medical workers with their personal protective equipment. They monitor patients' vitals and well-being, arrange and distribute new patients, and keep medical records. “You must find a common language with the patients, listen to their complaints, show a willingness to help and create an atmosphere of comfort and safety,” said Ilyas Kairgaliyev, a volunteer student and future surgeon.

Akbota Maratkyzy, also a student at Astana Medical University, explained that it was a natural decision to help. “As soon as the first case of COVID-19 was registered in Kazakhstan, I immediately went to work as a volunteer”. “In the beginning, it was a bit scary, but I was able handle this situation particularly well, thanks to the support and solidarity of all my colleagues”, she added. Other students have been engaged engaged in packaging food and providing essential products like face masks and antiseptic agents to population in need.

The new reality dictates new rules to institutions of higher education. Along with the traditional scientific and educational nature of universities and colleges, Astana Medical University considers that it is critical to foster the contribution to social development and to face collectively challenges like the ongoing pandemic. These examples highlight the relevance of universities to address such challenges, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in this particular case, related to Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being.