Lagos, Nigeria – In a small row of five ordinary-looking apartment blocks housing residential medical staff and their families at the College of Medicine, Idi-Araba, is Flat Number 24. Set in a leafy suburb of Lagos, the five blocks face a row of detached houses, the buildings forming a quadrangle that serves as a play area for children.
Although neither lives there these days, it still holds good memories for Dr Alero Ann Roberts, 60, and Dr Kofo Odusote, 73, and they break into smiles and giggles talking about it. The women have fond recollections of the time they spent together in that flat.
On the second floor of one of the blocks, it was home to Kofo, her husband, Professor Kayode Odusote, and their three sons.
It is also where Kofo and Alero met for the first time in the early 1980s, when Kofo’s younger brother, Seyi, introduced the woman he would later marry to his family.
Over the following decade, the two women would spend long hours in that busy, hectic two-bedroom flat helping each other navigate the demands of their medical careers, marriages and children.
“It became the ‘family hub’,” Alero explains. “I was a resident doctor but I lived off-campus and was on call every night. Aunty Kofo’s support was what kept me going.”
At the time, Kofo was working as a registrar in the Paediatrics Unit at the College of Medicine, but says, “Alero was a young wife and a new mother just starting out on her career … so I offered to help out with my young nephew.”
These days, Alero has become something of a public figure in Nigeria with her reassuring appearances on the popular news station, Channels TV, in her thick-rimmed glasses, lipstick and doctor’s coat. She has an approachable, yet no-nonsense air about her when she speaks and it is easy to see why viewers love her when she gives updates and guidance about COVID-19.
A senior lecturer in public health at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Alero also works as a public health consultant at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Kofo, who has retired from medicine, now runs a care home for the elderly in Lagos.
Today, the two women are sitting side by side on a dark green leather sofa in Kofo’s home on Lagos Island, and their excitement and sisterly bond are palpable as they reminisce about their early days together.
The older woman is dressed in a patterned, white Ankara long gown and sports a well-coiffured hair-do; while her younger sister-in-law who has her long, slightly greyed hair woven into plaits, wears a black T-shirt and slacks.
There are nearly 14 years between them and both are now grandmothers.
“I am the eldest of four girls and ‘Aunty Kofo’ was the perfect big sister for me,” Alero explains. “Everything I do, I run through the prism of ‘What will Aunty Kofo say?’ She has had a great influence on my life.
“It all comes down to affirmation; open and honest affirmation at all times.” Smiling knowingly at her sister-in-law, she adds: “But if you do something wrong she will call you and let you know!”
Alero was at the start of her career when her first child, Damola, was born with Down’s Syndrome in 1985. When she found she was struggling to meet the special needs of her son, combined with being on call day and night, she drew on the example of Kofo: “Aunty Kofo never gives up. She is loyal and accommodating; always sees the good in people and has time for everyone. This has been a major influence on me because she taught me to broaden my perspective about life. When I am asked who my role model is, I always point to her.”
Kofo has experienced setbacks in her career, like the time in 1989 when her new appointment as director of health services at the University of Lagos was suddenly put on hold “while frantic efforts were made by management to fill the post with a man”.
“It was felt that, as woman, I would take time off from work to attend to sick children or would not be able to stay late for meetings,” she explains. Six months later, her appointment was finally confirmed.
The older woman says it was she who was inspired by her sister-in-law’s grit those days. “Alero had guts and was determined. When she had to, she put everything on hold to devote time to Damola … Her selflessness has shown in the fact that today, he is a medal-winning swimmer in the Special Olympics.”
The importance of ‘showing up’
In 2000, Alero moved into 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 contact tracing and provided a mobile clinic at the 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 learned valuable lessons from the crisis,” Alero explains.
They are lessons she has been able to apply over the past year.
As the second vice chair of the Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria and member of the Lagos State Emergency Operation Centre, she has become a prominent face and voice in the media. “One of the key activities of the Centre was to disseminate accurate information to the public in a way that matches international science guidelines with our local situation,” she explains.
She appears on Nigeria’s weekly COVID-19 Special Updates on Channels Television, and has also taken to social media to put pressure on wealthy members of the society to step up and help fund adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.
Through a network of female entrepreneurs, public servants, bankers, media practitioners and businesswomen that she is a member of, Alero raised the alarm when doctors and nurses started dying from coronavirus.
In June 2020, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) reported that 10 doctors had died across Nigeria and, later, on the 22nd of that month, a total of 910 doctors were under quarantine across the country. More health workers had tested positive for the virus in Nigeria than in any other country on the continent except South Africa. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control also confirmed that a total of 812 healthcare workers had been infected with the virus, including 29 of its own workers.
The situation was critical. “As a matter of fact, the doctors’ union had publicly stated clearly that it was going to call a strike over the grossly inadequate provision of protective equipment,” Alero adds.
At the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), where Alero works as a consultant, one doctor had died and several others had been exposed to the virus. “By mid-to-late-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 tests,” she says.
“There was a far more transmissible variant in the second wave, so I had to act fast. Staff members were becoming reluctant to attend to patients and we anticipated a situation whereby doctors, nurses, cleaners, physical therapists would stop coming in.”
Desperate, Alero sent several impassioned messages to her network, Women Inspire (WI). “The virus is not waiting. Currently, there are a number of high-profile cases in LUTH, whose staff urgently need PPE, masks, oxygen etc. I am here with my begging bowl,” she wrote.
The pressure she mounted paid dividends.
“Items donated by members of the Women Inspire Group to front-line healthcare workers at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital and University College, Ibadan, ranged from hand sanitisers, disposable fibre shoe covers, surgical gowns, protective clothing, cleansing products, medical infrared thermometers, examination gloves, face masks etc,” she says.
It is all about “showing up” when it matters most, Alero believes, just as Kofo taught her, no matter what the pressures are in the rest of your life.
“No matter how busy the working week had been, Aunty Kofo always showed up. I had no excuse not to do the same.”
An ‘Amazon’ against COVID
When a blanket ban on movement, including that of essential healthcare workers, was issued by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in Lagos State in May last year as part of new lockdown rules, Alero once again took to the media to stand up for the most vulnerable.
During her weekly televised update on COVID on Channels TV, she said: “The restriction of essential workers is a risky business. What happens to patients? What happens to the lady who goes into labour tonight? Has the Commissioner of Police thought about that?”
Later that night, the following headline appeared on Channels TV’s news ticker: “IGP rescinds order on movement of essential workers.”
In response, the Nigerian press started referring to her as one of the “Amazons Against COVID-19”. But, she stresses, “It was a team effort. The healthcare system is made up of the cleaner to the clinician. If one part of the system does not work, everything will collapse, so we are a team just doing our jobs.”