London hospital patients caught in fallout of Saudi-Canada spat – The London Free Press

London hospitals, one of them Southwestern Ontario’s largest, are scrambling to deal with the looming loss of 54 Saudi Arabian medical students ordered to leave Canada by their government in its cascading human rights spat with Ottawa.

The doctors-in-training, among 800 nationwide yanked back by the Saudis, are part of a small city of students from the desert kingdom studying in Canada, some 18,000 in all, whose education here has been abruptly halted in the fallout of the diplomatic standoff.

The oil-rich Persian Gulf nation has also slapped a freeze on new business with Canada, expelled our ambassador and taken other measures to punish Canada, with at least one report saying it has ordered state-owned pension funds and banks to sell off Canadian assets.

But of all the retaliatory measures Saudi Arabia has taken since the weekend, when the dispute erupted over Canada’s criticism of the kingdom over the arrest of several social activists, the loss of medical students completing their educations in teaching hospitals might have the greatest immediate impact on Canadians, including Londoners, by siphoning talent from a system often struggling to meet demand.

“I honestly do not know what they are going to do, but I imagine there are a lot of administrators scrambling to figure out what will happen next,” said Dr. Sharadindu Rai, a London family physician and president of the London Academy of Medicine.

Lack of warning about the retaliatory Saudi action means hospitals will have to adapt quickly, he said.

Late Wednesday, the London Health Sciences Centre, the region’s largest hospital, and St. Joseph’s Health Care confirmed that view in a joint statement.

“We are in the process of assessing the impacts this will have on our hospitals and the patients we serve, and developing plans to manage the situation. As this situation is evolving, it is too early to provide specific detail,” the hospital said.

The medical students are part of group of 152 post-secondary students in London, including 131 at Western University and 21 at Fanshawe College, who’ve been ordered by the Saudi government to leave.

Because they provide frontline patient care along with nursing staff, the loss of the medical students will have the greatest impact .

“Having one fewer person on the ground makes it that much more difficult. I’m confident the LHSC will adapt, but it’s obviously a strain and caused by a decision that caught everyone off guard,” said Rai.

Precisely where and how the 54 medical students in London fit into the system wasn’t immediately clear, but the standard path to become a doctor in Canada extends well beyond university into the health-care system.

The Canadian Medical Association says doctors in training spend practical working time in medical settings, including hospitals, in their final year or two of school, followed by a residency that can vary in length depending on their medical specialty.

Despite the disruption, Rai said doctors he’s spoken to fully support the Canadian government’s defence of human rights.

There are losers all around in the Saudi retaliation, he noted.

He said Ontario hospitals have had a staffing and financial benefit because the Saudi government fully funds the medical students through scholarships.

“The Saudi government is channeling much-needed dollars into the system. They are paying the bills, providing human resources that hospitals need to provide patient care.”

He said the Saudi students will also be hurt in the fallout, because they and their families will be forced to uproot.

The residency programs operate year-round and usually start in July. “They will experience a massive disruption in their training program,” said Rai.

Western spokesperson Jeff Renaud said university officials were still assessing the situation, not commenting or releasing other information.

I honestly do not know what they are going to do, but I imagine there are a lot of administrators scrambling to figure out what will happen next

Dr. Sharadindu Rai

Because the fall term is still a month away, Renaud said, it’s not clear how many Saudi students are enrolled in classes and how many will return in the fall.

“If they were expected and now they are not coming, that’s 131 spots we have not given to someone else and that’s disruptive,” he said.

The Saudi order also affects about 15 students at the London Language Institute, which provides English language classes to immigrants and foreign students.

A school official said the students will be allowed to stay until the end of the month, but plans are on hold now for two Saudi high school students who had planned to come back to London in the fall.

In a typical year, about five per cent of the school’s students are from Saudi Arabia.

One Londoner with an experienced perspective on the Saudi situation is mayoral candidate and former Conservative cabinet minster Ed Holder. After his defeat in the 2015 election, the former London West MP served as head of the Canada-Saudi Business Council but stepped down from that position when he decided to run for mayor.

Along with Saudi medical students, London has a big stake in the Canada-Saudi dispute because defence contractor General Dynamics Land Systems in the city is serving a $15-billion contract between a federal Crown corporation and the Saudi government to supply light armoured military vehicles to the kingdom.

Holder said he hopes the Saudis don’t pull out of the contract, but said there’s no certainty.

“Only the Saudis can answer that. Given the number of good-paying jobs impacted, we all need to be concerned,” he said.

The deal, the largest industrial contract in London’s history, directly supports hundreds of manufacturing jobs at the plant, but extends beyond to include many non-unionized workers and a long list of suppliers in London’s growing hub of defence companies.

The multi-year contract is worth more than three times the average annual trade between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia has frequently come under harsh criticism from human rights critics for abuses of its own people and others in nearby Yemen

Holder said Canada’s stance on Saudi human rights is part of long tradition of defending rights, but he added he hopes the two countries can step back from the confrontation. “You can’t take back what has been said. I do hope they will find appropriate back channels with the Saudis to make things right again.”

Holder said he supports the London Chamber of Commerce, which has said that trade and communication are the best ways to persuade the Saudis to improve human rights.

“The more trade you have with a country, the more entries you have into all levels of government.”

— With files by Jennifer Bieman, Free Press reporter, and Canadian Press