NAT Siddhartha Kumar Baraily 1-1615294642017
Clockwise: Siddhartha Kumar Baraily, Dr Jayanthimala Suresh, Dr Nishi Singh, Manjula Ramakrishnan and Kusum Dutta at the webinar organised by the Indian Consulate in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A professor in virology recounted studying the first case of COVID-19 in the UAE and handling the helpline for anxious Indian expatriates.

Speaking at an International Women’s Day (IWD) webinar, organised by the Indian Consulate in Dubai on Monday, Dr Nishi Singh was among eight Indian expatriate women from different walks of life who spoke about the theme for this year’s IWD — Choose to Challenge.

In her case, Dr Singh said, choosing to challenge the stereotype happened when she chose virology as her speciality decades ago when not many people even knew about the stream. However, she said she had never imagined that she would one day live through a viral pandemic.

“The year of COVID-19 has taken an inordinate toll on mankind. Sadly, I had the opportunity to see the first case in the UAE during my assignment in Abu Dhabi in early February last year,” she said.

Dr Nishi
Dr Nishi Singh. Image Credit: Supplied

The first cases of coronavirus infection in the UAE were reported in a family of four who had come from Wuhan in China on January 29, 2020. Khalifa University students doing the first batch of MD in the country could learn more about the initial cases through her class, Dr Nishi later told Gulf News.

Having had a close association with the hospital where the patients were being treated, she said she could talk to the doctors to help her students get a better understanding of the cases. An infectious disease specialist, Dr Nishi has worked as the head of infection-control at Rashid Hospital in Dubai. She is a professor in Sharjah College and chair of health sciences programmes at Dubai Men’s and Women’s Colleges, under the Higher Colleges of Technology. She said she was proud that many people managing the COVID Command Centre were her students.

She praised the UAE government for taking timely steps to battle the deadly virus. “In addition to that, I witnessed a community effort of a magnitude previously unseen,” she said.

Handling distress calls of Indians

“Establishment of the COVID-19 helpline by the Indian Consulate was a timely step and manning it was indeed a matter of pride for me, to be able to use my knowledge and experience of 35 years as a virologist and physician,” she added.

She further said: “In those early days, as the hitherto unknown mysterious virus affected humanity, it set in motion a panic as the infection spread to every corner of the world like a wildfire. The world watched in horror as the numbers rose. A humongous dread of impending doom pervaded the [Indian] diaspora.”

The calls to the helpline were frequent and threatened to overwhelm the doctors, she said.

The Indian missions had earlier said that during the peak of the pandemic, their help centre had registered about 8,000 calls per month.

While the pre-pandemic grievances handled by the centre were largely related to labour issues, marital disputes and financial issues, diplomats said the nature of the calls that came in during the pandemic changed drastically as there were hundreds of thousands who wanted to fly home, and many who wanted to know about health-care facilities and isolation facilities for COVID-19 related cases.

Psychological counselling

The missions then offered psychological counselling to several Indians with the support of doctors who were empanelled to voluntarily handle such calls that came through the emergency numbers

“The biggest queries were of course from those who had tested positive and were worried about their own prognosis, family contacts and coworkers. For those admitted in intensive care units and field hospitals set up by the UAE authorities, their family members did not have access to the patients as the health-care staff members were neck-deep in work,” Dr Nishi explained. “It took all the resolve to be able to handle those unending queries, especially since information on the virus was just beginning to trickle in. Home remedies and drug cures were like shooting arrows in the dark with no scientific evidence of efficacy.”

Dr Nishi said she kept a close watch on the published data — based on sound evidence-based medicine — in order to be able to help and guide those in need.

Humanitarian issues

“Concurrently, many humanitarian issues arose with loss of jobs and homes and kudos to all the volunteers who stepped in to support those in distress.”

The second category of calls on the helpline, she said, were from stranded visitors, especially older relatives and others on medication for chronic diseases. “Their stocks of medicines were over beyond their three-month stay and in the absence of medical insurance they were at a dead end. It was very difficult to arrange equivalent expensive medicines, especially those that needed prescriptions. Thankfully, almost all requests to friends and colleagues within the medical fraternity were honoured — an exemplary service by our medical community for which I’m truly grateful to them.”

COVID-19 and women

Though the severity of the virus affected women less, she said, it had still been a trying time for women who had to shoulder the extra burden of managing the household, as primary care-givers, in addition to attending to their own ‘work-from-home’ regimen and at the same time helping the children at home with their online schooling.

The going was all the more difficult for those women who could not share the burden of household chores with their partners or spouses, she pointed out. With the pandemic, she said, there is something that needs a special mention — the ‘shadow epidemic’ of gender-based domestic violence. “It has far surpassed the disease numbers with 243 million women affected worldwide.”

Call for wellbeing centre

“We encountered a number of cases of stress, anxiety, nervous breakdowns and suicidal tendencies and it took all my medical training and counselling skills to help the affected and prevent serious adverse consequences,” she said.

Taking a lesson from the experience of handling the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the need for mental health and wellbeing support groups cannot be emphasised enough. There is also need for a sound strategy to organise material help. “So it’s time we brainstormed to get a medical and wellbeing centre established under the auspices of the consulate. If we can come together in tumultuous times, surely we can do better in calmer times,” Dr Singh added.

Women as essential frontline workers

Siddhartha Kumar Baraily, Consul, Press, Information and Culture at the consulate, said women have emerged as essential frontline workers who have displayed exemplary leadership skills to help the community in the time of the pandemic.

“They have overcome hardships and faced health risks to ensure continuity in the system. The journalists braved the frontline to cover critical issues concerning people while the teachers ensured a consistent learning process by imparting online education right into the students’ homes.

“Social workers have come forward and helped people with repatriation during the Vande Bharat Mission [to repatriate stranded Indians], while nurses and doctors took great risks to treat COVID patients.

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“Even our homemakers strove to keep the family happy, positive and engaged during the difficult phase of the lockdown. And it is due to the combined efforts of women that we can celebrate this special day,” he added.

Nargish Khambatta of GEMS Modern Academy and vice-president, Education, at GEMS Education, Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal and director of Delhi Private School in Dubai, Manjula Ramakrishnan, president of SmartLife Foundation, Kusum Dutta, founder of Community and Social Work Group, and Dr Jayanthimala Suresh, president of Dubai Tamil Sangam, also spoke about dealing with challenges during the pandemic in their respective fields of work and community volunteering services.