When Michael Blease-Shepley left his home in the United Kingdom on March 14th, 10 days before widespread restrictions were enacted by the British government, it was for a three-week work assignment in Nigeria. He didn’t know the outbreak was going to turn into a pandemic.
“I was basking in the sunshine with 80,000 people in the U.K. at Cheltenham horse racing festival. It’s fair to say I had no idea the outbreak would reach the levels it did, especially in the U.S. and the U.K.,” he said.
Fifty days later, Shepley emerged from an international odyssey of multiple quarantines, civil unrest, coronavirus fears and xenophobia with a renewed appreciation for the complexities associated with a global outbreak of a contagious disease.
“I had a three-week work assignment in Nigeria. My return flight was set for April 3rd,” he said.
Unfortunately, by that time the coronavirus was disrupting everyone’s plans. Flights in and out of Nigeria were canceled and the international airport was closed.
“I was supposed to be home in time for my wife’s 40th birthday party.” He didn’t make it.
Blease-Shepley left the U.K. without seeing any evidence of the seriousness of the troubles looming. He experienced no issues during his trip from the U.K. to Nigeria.
“There was nothing going on at the airports. I went from my house to Heathrow Airport and there were no precautions anywhere. Nothing was different,” Blease-Shepley said.
He checked his bags and waited in the lounge – everything seemed normal. On the flight it was business as usual.
“It all looked normal. No masks, no gloves, no precautionary seat spacing,” he said.
The normal look of things didn’t change after arriving at the Nigerian airport where Blease-Shepley collected his luggage and hopped into his company car service.
“I had armed security detail – but that’s routine in Nigeria – even during normal times.”
Again, he saw no evidence of pandemic fears or precautions anywhere, particularly in Lagos, the country’s largest city.
“I arrived at the apartment, showered, changed and went to work.”
That’s when things changed for Blease-Shepley. When he arrived at the office, he was briefed on the client project. Then one of his client leaders asked if he had arrived from the U.K. When he confirmed he had, he was immediately ordered into a two-week isolation, working from his apartment.
“Within hours of arriving in Lagos I was asked to do self-isolation.”
It was his first experience where the outbreak was more serious than he previously thought.
Blease-Shepley returned to his apartment and self-isolated for almost two weeks. But during that time things got gradually worse. The virus had been identified as a pandemic. Countries everywhere were issuing travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, closing roads, airports and businesses.
“Seven days into my initial isolation everything shut. It was a complete, forced lockdown.”
“The social unrest was escalating daily with limited law and order. Road blocks were put up everywhere. The Military and Police were on the streets in Lagos to control organized gangs. There were running battles in the streets,” he said.
Blease-Shepley’s security detail at his apartment was visibly compromised. Guards were lacking proper protective equipment and were insufficiently armed.
“Guards were supposed to have bullet resistant vests. They didn’t have any magazines for their rifles. I knew I needed to move to a safer location.”
Blease-Shepley found an alternative apartment at a fortified compound after coordinating with his network of colleagues. He quickly relocated into a building that housed British Marines as residents and guards.
“I stayed there for about four weeks. That’s when I started to engage Global Rescue. I needed to get out of Nigeria and back home,” he said.
Blease-Shepley was meticulous about isolation. He knew if he was infected with coronavirus his chances of getting out of Nigeria and back to the U.K. would be severely limited.
“I hunkered down. I was screened for the virus every other day and thankfully, I had no fever or any other symptoms.”
But the developments outside were changing rapidly. It was getting more and more dangerous day by day.
“We were hearing Westerners were being targeted, robbed, even kidnapped and held for ransom. We heard of at least four or five expats that had been seriously compromised.”
Global Rescue’s operations team kept in frequent contact with Blease-Shepley – daily and sometimes more frequently. An intense and time-consuming, international scramble kicked in as multiple plans were formulated for a repatriation flight out of a locked down country.
It would take time for government, health and transportation officials from multiple countries— including Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. — to coordinate how and when jets would be permitted to land, load expat passengers and depart, while simultaneously taking an abundance of caution to prevent exposure to – or spread of – coronavirus.
Global Rescue officials kept Blease-Shepley appraised. He realized he would likely need to remain sheltered for about 10 days.
“During the next week and a half there were no government repatriation flights. Global Rescue had a team of special operations experts working to obtain a private aircraft to get me out – but the permitting was troublesome and could not be obtained from local officials. I was also running out of food,” he said.
Global Rescue stepped in to help on that front, arranging for the pickup and delivery of a five-day supply of groceries for Blease-Shepley.
“I really don’t know how my guy at Global Rescue did that. It was pretty nice getting those steaks and other provisions.”
At the end of 10 days, numerous calls, meetings, planning and a few false starts brought on by the unprecedented circumstances, Global Rescue managed to get Blease-Shepley on a repatriation flight.
“It was crazy. It came from nowhere,” he said.
It was late Tuesday night and Blease-Shepley received a phone call from a top official at the British-Nigerian Mission.
“She had spoken to someone at the American Embassy and – I believe – the Global Rescue operations team and then next thing I knew I was on a repatriation flight set for Wednesday afternoon – in a business class seat no less.”
The late-night notification gave Global Rescue less than 12 hours to arrange for an armed security team to collect Blease-Shepley and transport him to the airport.
“I was picked up by a private security team. The lead vehicle was manned with several armed guards. I was in the middle car. The trailing vehicle also had several armed guards in the back. I’m used to armed security details but this was a bit more firepower than I’d seen before,” he said.
The added security and Blease-Shepley’s British Government Diplomatic clearance paperwork was sufficient to get through all the road blocks.
“There was just one where we were stopped but after some pushing and shoving, we were on our way.”
Blease-Shepley made it home safely and was immediately ordered into a seven-day isolation. His final quarantine day was May 2nd. Blease-Shepley had spent the better part of 50 days in isolation in Nigeria. He never had a coronavirus symptom and still does not. He credits key personnel at Global Rescue for all the assistance, especially the peace of mind during an unpredictable time of insecurity and health threats.
“They kept me settled, calm and informed. That was the best,” he said.
When Blease-Shepley finished talking with Global Rescue for this article, he celebrated the end of his final quarantine by going outside to take a walk with his wife and young children.
Welcome home, Global Rescue member Michael Blease-Shepley.
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