Challenging times lead to aspirations about global health advocacy

Ms Zalak Desai

By Ms Zalak Desai

My name is Zalak Desai and I am currently working as an Oral Health Therapist with a strong interest in women’s health globally. As an oral health therapist, I work closely with dentists and dental hygienists to educate communities about the importance of oral health and its impact on general health and wellbeing. Our work is highly practical and “hands-on”, particularly with emergency or trauma patients. With the announcement of the first lockdown, we immediately stopped providing services for our patients - being a very high-risk environment of virus transmission. With no official guidelines or indications on how we could safely serve our patients – especially patients who would otherwise present to the Emergency Department– we urgently developed our own guidelines to safely practice. Our immediate concern was to relieve the overcrowded and overworked hospitals of dental emergencies and trauma cases.

The second week of the lockdown brought news of global masks and glove shortages – restricting our capacity to work.  I remember feeling constantly fearful I would inadvertently expose my family to the virus as I continued to work in such a high-risk environment. Additionally, the contract tracing protocols, shortages of RATs and the delay in PCR results meant we were unable to work for 5-6 days on end, waiting for a negative result. This exacerbated the shortage of our limited workforce and added a greater burden of work on colleagues allowed to work. Who would see the emergency patients? Should we reschedule them? When could we reschedule them to? There were concerns about shortages of PPE and unemployment. However, with the support of the wonderful principal dentists I worked for, we were able to adapt our protocols, both for our patients and ourselves, to face the challenges the pandemic.

During this time, I was in my final semester of my Masters of Global Health program. It was particularly difficult as my final capstone project, of which I had completed significant primary preliminary research, had been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

My new research project focussed on the relationship between climate change and women’s health. I was astounded by this relationship, which was more notable in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs) where current degrading social, cultural and economic factors made women more susceptible to the damaging effects of climate change, particularly.  Having lived in India and Kenya when I was younger, I have never felt more grateful to be living in Australia, particularly during the height of the pandemic. My personal journey in LMICs propelled my passion to look for sustainable solutions that could be implemented through community awareness, education and advocacy, ideally on a global scale. I quickly came to realise that although theoretically many strategies and interventions had already been outlined, putting it into practice was a whole new world of challenge. Learning something and applying it to real world scenarios are very different things, and this was the biggest challenge and eye-opener for me amidst the chaos of the pandemic.  I was provided with the opportunity to present my research findings at the International Health Awareness Network event held during the United Nations Commission of the Status of Women earlier this year. Additionally, I had the opportunity to collaborate with other health professionals who are also passionate about the impact of COVID-19 on women’s health. We are in our own research endeavours, adapting to the new challenges of the pandemic. 

When I reflect on my experiences of COVID-19, I realise I am thankful that I was able to learn so many lessons, work towards achieving global health advocacy, and find new aspirations to pursue.