Gail Corbett’s first deployment in Iraq as a training nurse was only supposed to be a short break from her profession as an educator in a neonatal unit in Wellington to fulfill a life-long dream. However, after spending a few months in Iraq, Gail has come to a realisation that this kind of job is something she wants to do longer-term.  

“Initially, it was just a six-month secondment. It was just a short-term opportunity. I had intended to come back to my job in New Zealand, but I really enjoyed the work, so I resigned from my position in the neonatal unit to sign up for longer term missions,” she says. 

Gail had always been keen to be an international delegate way back when she was younger. But as she was more interested to be around while her kids were growing up, this dream had to take the back seat. It was only in 2010 that she finally had the chance to pick up this long overdue plan. 

For the past decade, she has undertaken several placements that brought her to the frontlines of places affected by armed conflict such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. As a skilled health professional, she helped respond to crisis and provide emergency medical aid and essential training to those most vulnerable. 

In 2017, she received the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international nursing distinction, for exceptional courage and devotion to the victims of armed conflict or natural disaster. 

“I enjoy the work as well as the relationships that you build with people that you’re working with - the resident staff and the people in the communities we’re involved with. Also, the actual experience gives you a different perspective on what we hear on the six o’clock news all the time,” she shares. 

Gail with colleagues, on their way to assess a health clinic in Afghanistan. 

Responding to COVID-19 in Afghanistan

When the global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced, Gail was in Kabul, Afghanistan, nearing the end of a three-year deployment with the International Committee of the Red Cross. It is there that she saw first-hand the overwhelming impact of the disease. 

From her usual role of working closely with hospital management to help them adopt safe practices and good standard of care for patients, she quickly had to shift to helping them establish an infection control centre.  

Gail explains, “Since COVID-19, the days were very different – a lot of the work that we were doing focused on preparing them, training them, getting them to really understand that it was a potentially serious situation.” 

She also trained local nurses and doctors on how to recognise virus symptoms, how to safely separate infected and non-infected patients and the importance of treating water, handwashing and using personal protective equipment. 

Another important part of her role in Kabul was to help educate people on the dangers of COVID-19. 

“The key challenge is understanding the whole size of the problem. When it comes to mounting a response, there’s just not that enough capacity in the country – even in normal times there are only 100 ICU [intensive care unit] beds in the country and they’re not well resourced,” she says. 

International support is needed now more than ever

With the COVID-19 situation, Gail highlights that international support – particularly to developing countries – is needed now more than ever.  

As per her observation in the years she has spent in some of these places, she says, “It is important for us to keep in mind that in terms of responding to this disease, they might not have the fancy ventilators and systems that we would be used to in some of the developed countries.” 

Moreover, Gail recognises that the COVID-19 crisis is more than just a health emergency.  

She elaborates, “When it comes to the protective mechanisms like the one New Zealand has put into place – the lockdown where people are isolating at home – it may not be a practical option for them. In some of these places, a key challenge for individuals is that they have no access to social welfare systems, so there’s no back up. If people can’t earn money, then they’re not in the position to be able to feed their families.”