Foreign Affairs

Kiwi nurse fighting Covid in conflict zones

The Kiwi nurse working in conflict zones, helping war-wounded, and improving hospital systems was forced to do a major pivot when Covid-19 hit Afghanistan. Gail Corbett tells Laura Walters about living her life in some of the world’s most dangerous places, and what keeps her going back.

Gail Corbett was supposed to be in Afghanistan on a 12-month mission. That was three years ago.

The New Zealand nurse’s latest mission with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was focused on improving the long-term sustainability of Mirwais Hospital, a 600-bed hospital in the southern province of Kandahar.

That mission morphed, and Corbett found herself in the role of ICRC’s Afghanistan health coordinator, based in Kabul when Covid-19 hit.

Corbett says international organisations were no better prepared for the pandemic than governments. 

Countries experiencing conflict have faced the same issues sourcing protective equipment. But in places like Afghanistan, there are added challenges. The healthcare system is outdated and strapped for cash, the country only has 100 intensive care beds, and there are added barriers when 75 per cent of the population lives in rural isolation.

Despite these additional challenges, Corbett and her team had to find a way to locally source PPE and distribute it around the region. They also had to convince people they could trust the equipment, even though it didn't come from the usual manufacturing hubs that infer quality, like Germany or China.

So far, Afghanistan has recorded almost 34,000 confirmed Covid cases, and more than 900 deaths.

It's possible there have been more cases, and further deaths. Rural isolation, lack of understanding of the virus, and the reluctance of people to visit a hospital - for fear of catching Covid-19 or having their dead taken by the state - means some will not have sought medical help.

The New Zealand nurse is used to working in high-risk environments. “But you have conflict, and then sometimes you have conflict on top of conflict.” And that's what Covid was.

In her 10 years working for ICRC, the mother and grandmother has become adept at a quick pivot.

She’s worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Gaza. And while all are conflict hotspots, some are more like war zones than others.

In 2014, a picture of Corbett working in Gaza went around the world.

Gail Corbett (right) was part of the team removing war-wounded in Gaza, while the area was under bombardment. Photo: Supplied                                                                  

A BBC journalist captured a group from the Palestinian Red Crescent and ICRC moving patients to safety, while under fire. At the moment the photo was taken, the heavy bombardment had paused, and the team had two hours to create a safe passage to remove the injured.

Now, Corbett acknowledges she probably shouldn’t have put herself in that situation, but she couldn’t say she’d never do it again.

She was again reminded of the very real risk to her life last month, when 24 people were killed in an attack on a Kabul maternity hospital.

On the morning of the attack, Corbett was at a hospital in a nearby neighbourhood.

“It just makes you remember sometimes that you are in a war zone.”

There's no doubt those who work in these areas risk their lives - something New Zealand's Red Cross nurses are highly aware of following the abduction of Kiwi nurse Louisa Akavi. Akavi was abducted by ISIS in Syria in 2013, and is yet to be located. It's not known whether she's still alive.

Like any environment, you adjust, Corbett says. And there are ways to make a compound in a conflict zone feel more like home.

Corbett plays cards and table tennis with other international workers. And she likes to spend time in the gym - even if the gym is just a running machine under the air-conditioner.

Netflix is a godsend - aid workers no longer have to carry around a year’s worth of books. And internet access means Corbett can speak to her mother, children and granddaughter every other day.

She describes time in the compound as a ‘false life’. “In your mind you always know when you’re going to leave… But for me, while you’re there, it’s about adapting to it, and making the most of it.”

“It’s not about trying to save the lives of everybody, or anything like that. But we have got a bit of experience and knowledge, and sometimes that helps."

Despite these creature comforts, the work is challenging, and progress can be slow.

“To be honest, often it’s frustrating, and sometimes it feels hopeless,” Corbett says.

But she preaches patience to herself, and her colleagues.

“A lot of it is about sowing the seeds of ideas.”

When asked why she continues, despite the risks and the challenges, Corbett laughs: “I know, I should grow up and get sensible… But it’s really, really interesting.”

The things that keep her going are the same things that drove her to become a nurse: spending time with people, laughing, talking and sharing emotions.

“It’s not about trying to save the lives of everybody, or anything like that. But we have got a bit of experience and knowledge, and sometimes that helps,” she says.

Gail Corbett conducting ICU training in Iraq. Photo: Supplied

Corbett was born in Scotland but moved to New Zealand when she was 10.

At 16, she left home to train as a nurse, and worked as a neonatal nurse in Wellington and Christchurch, and as a midwife in Scotland for three years.

Then 10 years ago, she was ready for a change; one that would allow her to keep nursing. With her children grown up and independent, she signed up with the Red Cross, and was deployed to work in emergency departments and with the war-wounded.

Corbett comes home after each mission. She talks to Newsroom from her mother’s house in Levin - her recharge station.

If the weather permits, she will squeeze in some skiing during the New Zealand winter. Usually, Corbett splits her downtime between New Zealand and Brisbane, where her two children and grandchild live.

Needless to say, they’re all happy she’s back from Afghanistan, and in one piece.

In 2017, Corbett was awarded the ICRC’s Florence Nightingale Medal, for exceptional courage and devotion to the victims of armed conflict or natural disaster.

“It does make you feel that you’ve got a responsibility to keep doing what you’re doing.”

She’s one of just 31 New Zealanders to be awarded the medal in its 104-year history.

Corbett says the award was an honour, but she has many deserving colleagues.

“It does make you feel that you’ve got a responsibility to keep doing what you’re doing.”

Soon she’ll be heading to Cairo, to work with ICRC hospitals across the Middle East, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Palestine.

When asked about her future, the 58-year-old mentions a Kiwi nurse who completed her last ICRC mission at 72.

It’s clear she has no intention of winding down, which is reiterated when her colleague describes Corbett as having “endless amounts of energy”.

ICRC nurse Erin O’Connor, who has worked with Corbett in Gaza and Afghanistan, says Corbett’s energy and dedication are impressive.

“Although Gail works hard and takes her roles seriously, she does so with a sense of humour and compassion for the people she serves, and those she works with.”

Despite her love of the job, there is a limit.

“What would stop me going is not having the tolerance to be able to communicate or discuss with people what you have to do.”

If she loses her ability to empathise with different cultures, and ways of thinking, Corbett knows it’ll be time to come home.

Until then, she’ll be packing up her photographs, yoga mat, trusty kitchen knife and yoghurt maker, to head off on her next mission.

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