Lagos YPO Community Steps Up to Build COVID-19 Field Hospital

As the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic increases across Africa, in Nigeria, the first reported cases of COVID-19 beginning in March triggered concerns by a number of YPO Lagos Chapter members for the millions of vulnerable people, culminating in building a fully equipped and operational COVID-19 treatment hospital in just three weeks.

Fola Laoye, Founder/CEO at Health Markets Africa, explains, “A lot of us have links to the U.K., and we travel there often. In early March, as we saw the scenario in the U.K. and Europe unfolding, a few members began to discuss how YPO Lagos needed to intervene, even though at the time we only had limited cases in the country.  We had a shared concern that the existing health care system would not be able to scale up quickly enough to respond and decided that the idea of a field hospital to treat infected people would be the right way to go.”

Within a few days, members organized into a core steering committee chaired by Ali Safieddine, Executive Director at Blackhorse Plastics Industry. Joining Safieddine and Laoye were Tatiana Mousalli Nouri, Deputy Group Managing Director at Aim Group ltd; Dr. Ola Brown, Founder of Flying Doctors Nigeria; Dr. Richard Ajayi, Executive Vice Chairman at The Bridge Healthcare; Niyi Yusuf, Managing Director at Verraki Partners; Fadi Jarmakani, Managing Director at African Exhibition Services Ltd.; Suraj Chulani, Chief Executive Officer at Sunlight Resources Ltd; and Yemi Osindero, Managing Partner at Uhuru Capital.

“By mid-March, corona was on everyone’s mind. We knew we had to bring in money and different expertise, so we contacted members from different industries, including finance, health care, construction, technology and HR, and came up with a plan,” says Nouri. “From the start, we treated this as a business. This gave us credibility in the eyes of donors, as we leveraged our rich chapter diversity, including gender, ethnic background and professional expertise.”

Safieddine adds, “For donors and volunteers, the YPO business community provided the assurance of some degree of transparency. KPMG offered their services as fund managers so that further helped legitimize the fundraising efforts.”


Politics and the snowball effect

As the team began fundraising, it became evident that the liaison with Lagos State would be critical part of the project. Ajayi, who has links with the government, led this effort. “While Lagos government was positive, it was made clear to us that we should be part of government strategy, because this is a pandemic and has to be integrated within overall strategy in terms of protocols and standards,” he says. “Initially, the idea of putting up a field hospital seemed contained. But it snowballed when Lagos State Government introduced biosafety standards and protocols, and we had to reengineer our designs and negotiate back and forth.”

For Safieddine, the politics was the biggest challenge. “Initially, the idea was for a private hospital, then we understood that to create the most impact, it had to be a public hospital, and the state wanted to run the hospital. Eventually, we signed an MOU and agreed that we would finance, equippe and manage the facility and they would bring doctors as oversight. There had to be a lot of collaboration and negotiation to get things done.”


Selfless hard work delivers a state-of-the art facility

Eti-Osa Isolation Center was inaugurated 22 April, 2020. For Nouri, it was the culmination of, she says, “21 days of selfless and hard work.”

The facility is a 70-bed emergency treatment and isolation center equipped with the latest equipment, including ventilators, monitors, respirators, mobile X-ray, ultrasound and oxygen piping. It is also designed to expand should the need arise and is staffed with 80 clinical and non-clinical staff (doctors and nurses including ICU) who underwent training from Lagos State Ministry of Health.

“Within only a few days of opening the hospital, the first ICU unit specifically for COVID-19 is already almost at full capacity, with patients ranging from a 90-year-old to a 3-month-old baby,” says Safieddine. For the next three months, YPO Lagos will continue working with the government to provide working capital to fund management and operations of the center. Upon decommissioning, all medical equipment will be donated to the state to enhance capacity in the health sector, and the group will support expansion should more capacity be needed.

Lives versus livelihood

As the team continues to watch the exponential rise of cases, they are also keenly aware of the devastating financial impact on Nigeria.

“We have more than one problem in Africa,” says Brown. “For all Africa, particularly for Nigeria, we have economic issues and we have healthcare issues. The pressure on healthcare infrastructure is huge. Even European countries, with much higher doctor per patients and ventilators per people ratios, have been overwhelmed. But in addition, in Nigeria, we have 90 million people living in extreme poverty, the highest number of people in the world. So, there is a huge economic burden in addition to the public health issue.”

Laoye adds, “We are also a country heavily dependent on oil revenues, and globally we have seen the downward spiral that oil prices have taken. Post-COVID, we are going to be a much poorer country, something we are already having to grasp, with a 25% devaluation of currency in last few weeks. Most of our supply chain is imported, so we are beginning to really suffer from shortages because of lack of dollars.”

On a related note, Nouri says, “Many Nigerians have grown up coping with malaria and other epidemics. They are resilient, in a way almost fatalists, and people are saying they are used to pandemics. Now the main problem for them is hunger.”


Learnings and opportunities

The team is proud of quickly completing the best-equipped COVID ICU in the country, and of the way it was able to balance setting up a public hospital that is privately run. “The government played a regulatory role, defining standards, and we were able to harness the effort from private sector to deliver and implement. It is a good model moving forward,” says Ajayi.

Nouri echoes the importance of this achievement for the future of the country. “We were able to offer not only the infrastructure but a holistic package, employing nurses, doctors, pulling in members with IT expertise,” she says, citing the governer’s acknowldgement of YPO effort on social media channels.

For all the members, this experience and the crisis present an opportunity for Nigeria, and all African countries, to focus more on health care in Africa. “We know how little investment goes to healthcare, and this cannot continue. This is an opportunity to speak the truth about investment in health of Africa and to improve the existing health care system,” says Brown.

On a personal level, the experience has also shown Brown that while social distancing policies enacted around the world were expected to weaken social networks, the opposite happened. Social capital — the relationships across communities that support society — strengthened.

But the job is not over yet. “We are all very happy that we succeeded in delivery of the center. But success is measured when we start discharging patients, part of the KPIs we have set for ourselves,” says Nouri.

For more crisis leadership stories like these check out the COVID-19: Leading Through Crisis page on YPO.org. All YPO members can find breaking news, offer insights and view current discussions happening about COVID-19 impact within the YPO community on the YPO member-only platform.   


Rola Tassabehji is a writer and content marketing specialist with background in global brand management experience at Unilever and higher education at INSEAD. She is passionate about sharing stories of accomplished business leaders and has been interviewing chief executives and thought leaders from around the world for the past eight years.