Medical ‘Wonder Women’ making a difference in the region’s fight on coronavirus

Beyond Tunisia, many medical professionals across the Arab world are setting an example and giving their all to help win the battle.
Sunday 05/04/2020
Medical staffers treating patients of the COVID-19 pandemic at al-Hakim General Hospital in Iraq’s central shrine city of Najaf. (AFP)
n the frontline. Medical staffers treating patients of the COVID-19 pandemic at al-Hakim General Hospital in Iraq’s central shrine city of Najaf. (AFP)

TUNIS--From Merit-Ptah, the ancient Egyptian healer, to Rufaida Al-Aslamia, known as the first female surgeon in Islamic history, to Tunisian pioneering doctor Tewhida Ben Cheikh, the Middle East and North Africa region has been the birthplace of unique and exceptional women medical professionals.

Today, figures show an increasingly female-dominated sector in the Arab world: Women represent 65% of the medical doctors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, 61.5% of the graduate medical residents in Oman and more than 60% of the health sector workforce in Tunisia. Women constitute 79% of the nurses in Jordan.

Their numbers include talented and dedicated health workers who, today more than ever, face the biggest and riskiest challenge of their careers.

In the face of the pandemic, which has officially infected so far about 400 people in their country, Tunisian doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have been working day and night trying to limit the damage and make a difference while increasing risk to themselves.

“We can talk about real gender parity here in the health sector. Women represent 50% of the total number of doctors in the country and they also represent a 60% majority of medical school students,” Samira Merai, a lung specialist and former health and women’s affairs minister, told The Arab Weekly.

Currently head of the pulmonary diseases department at the Rabta hospital, one of the most important public health establishments in the capital, Tunis, Dr Merai underlined the importance of the role played by women in the war against the coronavirus threat. None of the female doctors is claiming any particular advantage or protection because of their gender.

“In all the hospitals of the country, I see resilient women who have pledged to work for days away from their families in order to help the country overcome the crisis,” said Dr Merai.

To lead by example and reassure the employees, the former minister was the one who took blood samples from the first suspected cases received in the hospital. Dr Merai was also the one who suggested placing all COVID-19 patients in one centralised hospital in order to facilitate their treatment and contain the disease. Other female professionals are overseeing reconstruction work aimed at expanding the medical facility’s ability to accommodate more patients. Her actions and ideas encouraged other female health-care workers to give more. “I see what they do and they make me believe in our health system,” she says, proudly.

Dr Merai is among a number of female doctors playing key roles in the war on the coronavirus in Tunisia. On the public awareness-building front, Dr Nissaf Ben Alaya, an epidemiologist and head of the National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases, has been offering daily briefings to the media since the beginning of the crisis. Another public health figure is Dr Agnès Hamzaoui, director of the Abderrahmen Mami Hospital, the only health centre in the country exclusively dedicated to coronavirus patients.

Women medical professionals in the private sector are offering help to their colleagues in public hospitals. Some private clinics have even offered to treat patients for free and their staff have responded positively to the initiative.

Marwa H, a private clinic nurse (who preferred not to give her full name), told The Arab Weekly she is willing to stay at work and confine herself for up to a month away from her family just to be of help.

“It is our role, no matter how small or large, to support our country in these circumstances. I am not the only one to have offered this aid, dozens like me have been helping every day for weeks, women left family and comfort to participate in the general efforts in this war,” said the nurse. “It is a war and we are its soldiers, despite the growing risk.”

From the doctors to the cleaning janitors to the factory employees who self-isolated to manufacture face masks daily to the businesswomen who offered to shelter patients in their hotels and deliver food for the health-care workers of the hospitals, women are joining hands with men in fighting the pandemic. Beyond Tunisia, many medical professionals across the Arab world are setting an example and giving their all to help win the battle.

In Syria, Dr Iman Mohamed Abdel-Razzaq is one of the many heroes risking their lives on the frontlines. As an emergency physician, she has launched an individual initiative touring the northern Idlib camps to raise awareness of the dangers of the coronavirus and how to prevent it.

Meeting women and children, she takes a daily tour of the refugee camps to provide advice and guidance on the threat of the virus in light of the lack of health services and cleanliness in the space.

In Beni Suef, Egypt, eight female nurses working in the Department of Chest Diseases have volunteered to stay inside the local hospital permanently to work with the team of doctors treating coronavirus patients.On the other side of the Atlantic, Dr Nermeen Botros, an Egyptian-American doctor, has become an online sensation after an interview in The New York Post. Chief medical resident at Brookdale University Hospital Medical Centre in Brownsville, New York, the 35-year-old has been working six-day weeks, from early morning until late in the evening, dealing with the overwhelming inflow of cases.

Female healthcare professionals are not only treating patients but also suggesting solutions to put an end to the pandemic. Dr Heba Badreddine, a Sudanese doctor specialising in stem cell treatments and hematology, believes stem cell technology could help treat the coronavirus.

An associate professor at Khartoum’s Neelain University, she explained that stem cell treatment can be used to reduce complications caused by the virus to the lungs, possibly offering new ways to beat the disease.

Women medical professionals know that the war against the invisible enemy of coronavirus is not without risk to them. The pandemic has also infected quite a few members of the “white army.” Iraqis are still mourning the female doctor who died in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, after contracting coronavirus when treating patients. Dr Sara Hassan al-Musawi had passed away from complications of the virus at the age of 35.

 

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