Dr Alero Roberts: Nigeria’s Anti-COVID ‘Amazon’ | News on the coronavirus pandemic

Lagos, Nigeria – In a small row of five ordinary-looking apartment buildings housing residential medical staff and their families at Idi-Araba Medical College, is apartment number 24. Located in a leafy suburb of Lagos, the five blocks face a row of detached houses, the buildings forming a quadrangle serving as a children’s play area.

Although neither live there these days, he has fond memories of Dr Alero Ann Roberts, 60, and Dr Kofo Odusote, 73, and they burst into smiles and laughs as they talk about that. The women have fond memories of the time they spent together in this apartment.

On the second floor of one of the blocks was the home of Kofo, her husband, Professor Kayode Odusote, and their three sons.

This is also where Kofo and Alero first met in the early 1980s, when Kofo’s younger brother Seyi introduced the woman he would later marry to his family.

Over the next decade, the two women would spend long hours in this busy and fast-paced two-bedroom apartment helping each other cope with the demands of their medical careers, marriages and children.

“It has become the ‘family hub’,” explains Alero. “I was a resident doctor but I lived off campus and was on call every night. The support from Aunty Kofo was what kept me going.

At the time, Kofo was working as a registrar in the Pediatrics Unit at the College of Medicine, but said, “Alero was a young wife and a new mother starting her career… so I offered to help him with my young one. nephew. . “

These days, Alero has become something of a public figure in Nigeria with his reassuring appearances on the popular news channel, Channels TV, in his chunky rimmed glasses, lipstick and doctor’s coat. She looks approachable, but unadorned about herself when she speaks and it’s easy to see why viewers love her when she gives updates and advice on COVID-19.

Lecturer in public health at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Lagos, Alero also works as a public health consultant at Lagos University Hospital. Kofo, who retired from medicine, now runs an elderly care home in Lagos.

Today, the two women sit side by side on a dark green leather sofa in Kofo’s home on the island of Lagos, and their enthusiasm and brotherly bond is palpable as they remember their beginnings together.

The older woman is dressed in a long white Ankara patterned dress and sports a well-groomed hairstyle; while her younger sister-in-law, who has her long, slightly grayish hair woven into pigtails, wears a black T-shirt and pants.

There are almost 14 years between them and both are now grandmothers.

“I’m the oldest of four daughters and ‘Aunty Kofo’ was the perfect big sister for me,” says Alero. “Everything I do, I go through the prism of ‘What will Aunt Kofo say?’ She had a big influence on my life.

“It all comes down to a statement; open and honest affirmation at all times. Knowingly smiling at her sister-in-law, she adds: “But if you do something wrong, she will call you and let you know!”

[Illustration of Dr Alero Roberts by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Sister support

Alero was at the start of her career when her first child, Damola, was born with Down syndrome in 1985. When she discovered that she was struggling to meet the special needs of her son, combined with being on call day and day. night, she relied on Kofo’s example: “Aunty Kofo never gives up. She is loyal and accommodating; always sees the good in people and has time for everyone. It had a major influence on me as it taught me to broaden my perspective on life. When people ask me who my role model is, I always point to her. “

Kofo has experienced setbacks in his career, such as the time in 1989 when his new appointment as Director of Health Services at the University of Lagos was suddenly suspended “as management made frantic efforts to fill the post with a man”.

“I felt that as a woman I took time off to look after sick children or I wouldn’t be able to stay late for meetings,” she explains. Six months later, his appointment was finally confirmed.

The older woman says it was she who was inspired by her sister-in-law’s courage at the time. “Alero had guts and was determined. When she had to do it, she put everything aside to devote time to Damola… Her selflessness showed in the fact that today he is a Special Olympics medalist swimmer.

The importance of “ introducing yourself ”

In 2000, Alero entered public health. Then, in 2014, she joined the Ebola Containment Trust Fund, set up to coordinate private sector funding to fight Ebola and other infectious diseases, as a trustee. It also assisted the Nigerian government in tracing contacts and provided a mobile clinic at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.

When Nigeria was declared Ebola free in 93 days, there was a collective sigh of relief within the Nigerian medical community.

“We have learned valuable lessons from the crisis,” says Alero.

These are lessons she has been able to apply over the past year.

As the Second Vice President of the Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria and a member of the Lagos State Emergency Operations Center, she has become a prominent face and voice in the media. “One of the main activities of the Center was to disseminate accurate information to the public in a way that corresponds to international scientific guidelines with our local situation,” she explains.

She appears on Nigeria’s weekly COVID-19 special updates on TV channels and also took to social media to lobby wealthy members of society to bolster and help fund equipment adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.

Through a network of women entrepreneurs, government officials, bankers, media professionals and businesswomen of which she is a member, Alero sounded the alarm when doctors and nurses began to die from coronavirus.

In June 2020, the National Association of Resident Physicians (NARD) reported that 10 doctors had died across Nigeria and, later, on the 22nd of that month, a total of 910 doctors were in quarantine across the country. More health workers have tested positive for the virus in Nigeria than in any other country on the continent except South Africa. The Nigerian Center for Disease Control also confirmed that a total of 812 healthcare workers have been infected with the virus, including 29 of its own workers.

The situation was critical. “In fact, the doctors’ union had made it clear publicly that it was going to go on strike over the manifestly inadequate supply of protective equipment,” Alero adds.

[Illustration of Dr Kofo Odusote by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

At Lagos University Hospital (LUTH), where Alero works as a consultant, a doctor has died and several others have been exposed to the virus. “From mid-November to the end of November 2020, we saw the second wave in the hospital; there was an increase in admissions and we were experiencing shortages of PPE and COVID testing, ”she says.

“There was a much more transmissible variant in the second wave so I had to act fast. Staff members were increasingly reluctant to take care of patients and we expected a situation where doctors, nurses, cleaners and physiotherapists would stop coming. “

Desperate, Alero sent several impassioned messages to her network, Women Inspire (WI). “The virus does not wait. Currently, there are a number of high profile cases at LUTH where staff are in urgent need of PPE, masks, oxygen, etc. I’m here with my begging bowl, ”she wrote.

The pressure it has built has paid off.

“Items donated by members of the Women Inspire group to frontline health workers at Lagos University Hospital and University College, Ibadan, included hand sanitizers, disposable fiber shoe covers, gowns. surgical equipment, protective clothing, cleaning products and medical infrared thermometers. , examination gloves, face masks, etc. “, she says.

It’s about “showing off” when it matters most, Alero believes, just as Kofo taught him, no matter what the pressures are in the rest of your life.

“No matter how busy the work week had been, Aunty Kofo always showed up. I had no excuse not to do the same.

An “ Amazon ” against COVID

When a general ban on movement, including that of essential health workers, was issued by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in Lagos state in May last year as part of the news lockdown rules, Alero once again spoke out in the media to defend the most vulnerable.

During her weekly COVID TV update on Channels TV, she said, “Restricting essential workers is a risky business. What happens to the patients? What happens to the lady who gives birth tonight? Has the police superintendent thought about it? “

Later that night, the following headline appeared on the Channels TV ticker: “IGP cancels order on essential worker movement.”

In response, the Nigerian press began to refer to her as one of the “Amazons against COVID-19”. But, she says, “it was a team effort. The healthcare system is made up of the cleaner to the clinician. If one part of the system doesn’t work, everything will fall apart, so we’re a team just doing our job. “

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