Seven years into her medical practice, Dr. Amara Karen Allison was in quarantine for the third time. The first time, six years ago, she had been a secondary contact of a patient who had the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). The second time, last November, she’d had viral haemorrhagic fever. Now there was a chance that she had the novel coronavirus, and because she has asthma, she was also in the high-risk group.
A few days before Dr. Amara went into quarantine, her team at the International SOS had received updated training on COVID-19, which was already ravaging Europe but had not entered Nigeria. Then on February 26, a Wednesday afternoon, an Italian man walked into her office 28 minutes before the end of her shift. “I started taking his history,” she tells me. “By the time I found out I was telling myself, ‘Contain this first and sort yourself out later.’”
Dr. Amara alerted her team and protocols were implemented. Also placed in quarantine were four health workers and 35 other people who had been in contact with the index case. Her employer assigned a psychologist to check in on her twice daily, and doctors from the World Health Organisation (WHO) were calling to encourage and advise her. “We didn’t know so much, as we do now, about the virus then, so we were all uncertain,” she says. “My crew members, we formed a group on WhatsApp, and we really supported each other there.”
“It was really, really gloom, it didn’t even hit me until the third day,” she says. “I couldn’t stand up because I was broken. And I cried, I wept.”
To create distraction, she resorted to Netflix, books, workout, and an online course in lifestyle medicine. “It’s safe to say I was depressed, but for every three negative thoughts, I countered them with five positive thoughts.”
On some days, she didn’t want to speak to anybody. “My mom would say, ‘Okay, don’t say anything, let me hear you breathing, just stay on the line.’ On the eight day I woke up with sore throat and I thought, ‘For real, I’m going to die.’ I made a video and I was telling my family how much I love them and how much I miss them.”
Born in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria, Dr. Amara grew up with five siblings, including a twin. “I had a full and wholesome childhood,” she says. “Mom’s a lawyer, dad’s a business man. I grew up with a lot of love.” She wanted to study English or Law, but her lawyer mother already decided that one of her twins would be a doctor. “My brother was already an engineer and she was telling everybody that she would be a ‘Mama Doctor.’” It wasn’t until her later years of study, at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, that she found her distinct passion.
“I had this child I bonded with, it was in my pediatrics posting in fifth year. She had Rhabdomyosarcoma, cancer of the muscle, and, oh my goodness, I remember, a very beautiful, very cheerful child. I would always come back after rounds or after school. If I had money, I would support them, the littlest way I could. And eventually, that child died. I had gone to another posting then. The parents called me to tell me. I was hit, I was shook up. And that’s when I realized, I really cared about medicine.”
A disease spreading across the globe, predestined to enter a country of 200 million with an unprepared health system, and then an index diagnosis by a female doctor: parallels were quickly drawn to the late Dr. Stella Adadevoh, regarded as a national paragon for her efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic in her Lagos clinic. But Dr. Amara does not entertain any comparisons.
“It didn’t cross my mind initially. Then my mom called one day, she was trying to console me, and said, ‘You’re just like Stella Adadevoh.’ I said, ‘Mommy, why would you say that? That woman was so much, she’s a hero. How can you even compare me to her? I’m just doing my job, abeg.’”
Dr. Amara continues to differentiate between the two situations. “As ravaging as it was, there was hope [with Ebola], there was a drug routine. But with coronavirus, it was gloom.”
Recently, resident doctors in Nigeria went on strike. “No matter what, at every point in time, doctors need full support and resources to meet their responsibilities efficiently,” Dr. Amara says. “Nurses and even medical support staff are getting infected. If they are not properly protected, there would be no soldiers between us and the virus any longer.”
How does she feel about the conspiracy theories? “It breaks my heart,” Dr. Amara says. “I was in quarantine and seeing people writing things. Even after Ogun State released my name in the thank-you message and I got so many messages—I’m shocked that one person can have all this love directed at them—I received a few very hurtful responses, too.
“Every day, regardless of how afraid we doctors are—imagine, several times a day you’re doing self-checks, swallowing, taking deep breaths. Imagine being on the frontlines and having to deal with the anxiety of all of this and having people say there’s nothing like coronavirus. Imagine my colleagues who succumbed to the disease, the ones that have won and are still fighting. Even if you don’t want to be a doctor any longer because you are afraid, you just think about your loved ones.”
“I haven’t seen my family in months,” Dr. Amara says. “My mom called yesterday. She cried. She said she’s happy I am the doctor I am now, but right now she wants me back home.”
It may be some time before she goes home, though. As Nigeria’s testing capacity increased, so did the numbers. In April, the Nigerian government announced that it will try to test at least two million people, a hundredth of the population, in the following three months; halfway through, there have been only 115,760 tests, with 20,000 cases, 7,000 recoveries, and 500 deaths, Premium Times reports. Daily, 900 to 1,400 tests are conducted across 26 molecular laboratories. With more Nigerians reporting a sudden loss of smell and taste, and three in ten Nigerians believing they are immune to the virus, the whirl of misinformation gets more dangerous, despite daily sensitization text messages from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Dr. Amara now uses her Instagram Live to sensitize her followers. “After working out, when I’m still sweating and all, I just go live. I talk about the proper use of face masks, handwashing technique, exercises, boosting immunity. They are so simple, there’s a tendency to gloss over them. A lot of people still don’t know how to wash their hands or the key moments to perform hand hygiene. When you educate one person, you’ve educated two or five others, who will go on to spread the information.”
Dr. Amara emphasizes collective readiness. “The unique thing about this pandemic is that not one person can fight it by themselves,” she says. “Everybody has to get together and fight it.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.