From Malaysia’s largest convention centre to hospital in four days

Four days. This is what it took to convert Malaysia’s largest exhibition and convention centre into a temporary hospital to house Covid-19 patients.

This happened at Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang (MAEPS) in anticipation of a third wave of cases.

Two halls in MAEPS – Hall A (9,600 sq m) and Hall C (3,600 sq m) have been turned into a quarantine and treatment centre to treat Covid-19 patients with light symptoms or those who are asymptomatic.

Those familiar with event management will agree turning a convention centre into a temporary hospital within four days is a remarkable feat.

What is even more amazing is this was achieved during the Movement Control Order where roads, shops and businesses were shut and people were grounded at home.

MAEPS chief operating officer Norafizah Rahman said her team will remember this achievement for a long time.

“We are used to setting up events in these halls. From automotive shows to travel exhibitions to concerts, we have seen it all. But we never imagined that we would one day ‘build’ a hospital and that too within four days,” she told Twentytwo13.

It all began on March 24 when she received a phone call from the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma).

“They wanted to conduct a site visit at 3pm the same day to look at the possibility of building a temporary hospital.

“I was at home. Many of my staff members were also working from home. Luckily we had a skeletal crew at MAEPS who guided the Nadma officers, showing them the facilities available,” Norafizah said.

By 8pm that day, she was told a steering committee meeting would be held the next day and it would involve representatives from Nadma, Health Ministry, Armed Forces, Civil Defence Department, Works Ministry and MAEPS.

“Wednesday arrived and we were told the Prime Minister had decided to turn MAEPS into a temporary hospital. We saw China building a hospital from scratch within 10 days but how do you convert a convention centre into a hospital?

“Later we studied some pictures from China and the US on how beds were arranged in buildings for Covid-19 patients and that immediately gave us a better perspective.”

But Norafizah felt merely placing beds in an open space would mean patients would not have their privacy and she quickly mooted the idea of placing these beds in cubicles instead.

With a clearer picture of how the facility should look like, it was all systems go for the staff at MAEPS and by Thursday night the floor plan for Hall A and C was complete.

But while the mechanism had been put in place, the bigger headache now was to secure the required items for the facility.

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“About 150 people were involved – from suppliers to contractors to even cleaners. We had to source for items fast and we had to get clearance from the police to ensure our vendors could not only enter their business premises but also move around to source for our items.

“Hardware shops were closed and we had to convince them to open so we could get the items.

“It was certainly a challenge as there were roadblocks and some of our suppliers were stopped and had to wait for us at police stations before permission was granted to them,” Norafizah said.

“It was a race against time as everything had to be ready by Sunday. The time we took to set up this hospital was faster than any of our normal events which usually take about a week,” she said.

“But we managed to get the suppliers to send us 400 beds and mattresses (for Hall A) in time while the blankets and bedsheets were provided by the Health Ministry. We tried our best to meet the requirement.”

Norafizah said Mardi Corporation chief executive officer Zaidi Shahrim played a crucial role as he was present daily to ensure they were on track.

Her crew, she said treated the task like any other event, but with the safety aspect (for would-be patients) given paramount importance.

Officers and inspectors from the Public Works Department and Health Ministry also conducted stringent tests to ensure the building had enough power supply, including standby generators. Items installed in the premises, including shower heads and towel hangers, had to be safe for patients.

The facility is fully air-conditioned and is equipped with a nurse call system, an emergency resuscitation area, a clinic, a pharmacy and x-ray facilities.

“We are glad that corporations like Telekom Malaysia agreed to provide free WiFi while Nestle sponsored cereals and drinks for all staff, including our staff who will be on duty when the hospital opens.

“There are also other sponsors who have committed to be part of this initiative and we are thankful to all of them.”

Other amenities at the temporary hospital include:

  • Computer
  • Surau
  • CCTVs
  • Changing areas
  • Rest areas equipped with massage chairs

By Sunday night, Hall A was complete and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who visited MAEPS on Monday was impressed.

“Not many know this, but MAEPS was the brainchild of the Prime Minister when he was Agriculture and Agro-based Minister over a decade ago.

“When we met on Monday, he was glad to see that MAEPS could be repurposed as a makeshift hospital when the country needed a facility to place Covid-19 patients,” Norafizah said, adding work in Hall C which will be able to house 200 patients is in progress.”

Norafizah showing Muhyiddin the ‘MAEPS Journey Through the Decade: An Agro-Wonderland Tale’ coffee table book that was conceptualised and written by Professional Storytellers.

And while the hospital will continue to exist as a standby facility, Norafizah said they viewed it as a national service.

“If MAEPS is used as a hospital, we will not be able to hold any events here. Once all patients are discharged, the halls need to be closed for one month for disinfection and will only open upon getting the go-ahead from the Health Ministry.”

“Although we have bookings for the hall, I believe people will understand that national interest supersedes all,” she added.

Since its inception in 2008, MAEPS has been a favourite location for event organisers as it boasts huge columnless exhibition halls which are fully air-conditioned complete with washrooms and ample open space, making it convenient for transportation and logistics.

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