In the days before the UAE decided to ground all commercial flights due to Covid-19, teams of nurses were dispatched to the busiest airports to help screen travellers entering the country.
Among them was Filipino nurse Kasserine Libot, 29, who volunteered to be part of the team her employer, VPS Healthcare, sent to Abu Dhabi International Airport.
“When I was first informed we would be going to the airport, honestly, I was shocked and kind of scared, knowing the pandemic situation as it is now – a life-threatening situation,” she says. “But then I remembered I have a professional oath. I am a nurse so I need to do my duty and help the patients who are sick and in need of our help.”
The operation began in early March, as authorities tried to contain the spread of Covid-19. Libot was deployed from March 9 and spent almost two weeks at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Wearing personal protection equipment (PPE) and armed with nasal swab-testing kits and surgical gowns, masks and gloves, she personally screened up to 500 passengers and airline crew members on any given day.
“We were told we need to test all passengers from high-risk countries – China, Italy, Syria and so on,” she says. “They all needed a swab to pass through immigration. We would mark each sample tube with the details of the passengers, then they would be taken away to a laboratory for analysis.
“The first day we were met with shock from passengers. It was because they didn’t know what the tests were and the significance of them at the time. We all explained that we had to give them the tests because they needed it for the safety of themselves and others.”
The week before the UAE closed its borders was one of “exhausting and draining” 12-hour days, says Libot.
“Many passengers felt worried or sad but we tried our best to keep spirits up,” she says. “Some airline crew were actually upbeat in the final few days, as they knew the drill.”
Libot said it was “heartwarming” to see the camaraderie that developed among her fellow healthcare professionals.
“For the busy spells and large flights there were some nurses who helped us from Zayed Military Hospital and SEHA,” she says. “It was nice to work with them and we ended up with all hands on deck.”
Filipino nurse Jeremy Zambra, who has worked in Abu Dhabi for five years, also volunteered for airport duty.
“At the airport during the massive screenings we were very busy,” he said. “Being a healthcare provider for almost eight years now, I couldn’t stand by watching the world suffer. Even though I knew it was risky for me, I couldn’t not do my bit and volunteer.”
Zambra said he was particularly grateful to the UAE government and his employer, VPS Healthcare, for ensuring all frontline medical staff had ample access to personal protective equipment. This was in contrast to other parts of the world, where hospital workers faced a shortage.
“We never ran out of PPE and they were essential in protecting us and everyone we were encountering,” he says.
He says many passengers were “nervous and afraid” as they confronted a military-style operation to be swabbed before they were allowed to enter the UAE.
What Zambra takes away from the experience are the simple gestures of thanks that he and his colleagues received from nervous members of the public.
“When I encountered this type of passenger I just would explain the procedure and calm them down,” he says. “What motivated me was how these passengers would convey a simple way to say thanks and would tell us to ’take care.’ These few words were very fulfilling and meant the world and I would remind everyone to say them to the healthcare workers who are working to battle this pandemic.”
Zambra has another message to all the other healthcare staff working out there.
“Stay committed,” he says. “Then surely we will overcome all this together.”
Jennifer Bell is an award-winning British journalist. She has worked for The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates as well as the The Press, in the United Kingdom. Based in Abu Dhabi, she splits her time working for Arab News and PRWeek Middle East. She also contributes to regional titles including Gulf News, Arab Weekly, Arabian Business, and The Business Voice.