Uniting in the Face of the Pandemic

This year, the World Pharmacists Day—celebrated every September 25—came with the theme ‘pharmacy united in action for a healthier world’. Our writer Tria talked to International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation’s Nazim Berbiche about what the day means for those studying and working in the field and how the word ‘united’ is implied in their actions.

Last month on September 25, the International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation, or IPSF, celebrated World Pharmacists Day, and the IPSF-led online campaign on Twibbonize garnered support from thousands of its members. World Pharmacists Day itself has been celebrated around the world since 2010 coinciding with the founding of the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) in the Hague on September 25, 1912 (Tekiner, 2017).

To Nazim Berbiche, the newly-elected Chairperson of Media and Publications for IPSF, the day is like a national day for people practicing and studying in the field. “It’s about unity, about being proud of what you do, and bringing pharmacists all together for the world,” he continued, aligning with this year’s theme of World Pharmacists Day, or WPD: ‘Pharmacy united in action for a healthier world’. 

Living in the world that is still facing the COVID-19 outbreak, I wondered if the word ‘united’ was particularly thought of by IPSF in regards to our current state. “It was definitely in mind,” said Berbiche, “one of the issues that becomes our focus in IPSF is about mental health, and how ours are affected because of the pandemic.” During the first two years of COVID-19 outbreak was undoubtedly tough for everyone, and it was especially a challenge for healthcare workers. A huge part of IPSF members, consisting of students and recent graduates, were working in the hospitals during this period, especially when there was a shortage in hospitals. “It was difficult to maintain the work, it was difficult to function properly,” Berbiche reminisced, “in a way this day is also about, ‘Oh, we made it! We made it out together.’”

There is also an issue of unfairness of access that is highlighted in this year’s theme. Berbiche explained to me how it is more difficult for people in developing countries to gain access for vaccinations. The lack of access also affects their willingness to be vaccinated as information about its benefits are not available widely. Vaccination, Berbiche asserted, is a basic right. “You might say that it’s about being united to advocate for people’s lives,” he continued in regards to the theme of WPD. Corroborating his statement, a thorough 2022 investigation by Amy Maxmen also has pointed out that “vast, ongoing delays in the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have resulted in death on a massive scale and arguably allowed the evolution of the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa late last year.”

Maxmen discusses one of the causes of the inequity is the domination of Big Pharma, or major pharmaceutical companies concentrated in Europe and North America, in the research and production of COVID-19 vaccine. I brought up this issue regarding Big Pharma and how its existence might stand against the idea of being united. But he thought that IPSF, as a student federation, is aware of their own limitations, “We are a nonprofit organization, we try to focus on what we can actually do to improve things out there.” Therefore, efforts are focused in uniting students to improve education in pharmaceuticals. One of the ways is to improve how the public perceives pharmacists.

About this public perception, if you are an Indonesian, you might be more familiar with the word apoteker than ‘pharmacist’. The word is derived from its Dutch origin apotheker, and the meaning of these words refers to one idea, a repository or storehouse. So, if the first thing that you think of is the person you go to when you need to buy medicine, then you are not mistaken, but you aren’t entirely correct either. A very recent 2022 study, discusses that pharmacists are still more often seen as “legal drug dealers”, at the expense of their other roles as a researcher, educator, and, the most painstaking one, verifying that the right medicine goes to the people who need it.

“Pharmacists are much, much more than that. We really just want to expand this mindset, to replace stereotypes, you know,” said Berbiche. He argued further that pharmacists are the most accessible healthcare professionals for people. And I told him of the many instances where I would go to the apoteker in my neighborhood asking for the right medicine to treat the light symptoms I’m having instead of going to a doctor. “Yes, that’s why I always remember what my professors said, that we must not make mistakes. We are the first ones people see to ask [about their illnesses],” Berbiche responded.

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