9 o'clock curfew in Monrovia, and it is 7:45 pm. The anxiety is palpable, even from inside the safety of my car. Three teenagers stumble by, the tallest of the three, a young girl, visibly drunk, at least that's what it would seem, as her friends half-carry her. A young couple walking along pause, speak to each other, looking at the three teenagers with fear, and cross to the other side of the street. I can tell that they are wondering the same as me: is it just youths drinking? (sad enough) Or is the girl feverish? (if so, why are the two others holding her, touching her?) Or perhaps she is out of her mind with grief and that is why she is acting so erratically? Fear. I keep my windows closed. We know the virus isn’t airborne, but you just never know.
I drive on, and see pedestrians running along the boulevard, one here, two there, an older couple, someone probably coming home from work... they run. The public transport is gone at this time, and they have to find their way home or some place to spend the night, before 9 pm. What happens after 9? Mystery. Fear. Fear. The last time there was a curfew, it was the civil war. But now, the enemy, the virus, is invisible, it can be anywhere. I have been in states of siege in my life, but this feels worse: no one is safe, no one feels safe.
Earlier today… At the social enterprise KaSaWa Fashion House, near the office, a 28-year old young man lies on a couch, his left leg wrapped in a makeshift cast held together with pieces of cloth. He has multiple fractures. He could be my son. His eyes are closed, he is drifting in and out of the haze of painkillers. Tina, the “mother” of the KaSaWa charitable organization, tells me that after his motorcycle accident last weekend, they couldn’t find anywhere to take him. She had called me in a frenzy on Saturday, saying they were driving around looking for help, medical help, but I didn’t know who she was, why she was calling, and had feared and assumed that this anonymous caller was talking about an Ebola case. Everywhere, they were turned away. They finally found a doctor, through her personal network, who came to see him. Yesterday, the infection together with the fractures led the doctor to consider amputating. She refused, and has found painkillers and antibiotics, although he really should be on intravenous. But how to get medical attention in “Ebola country”? Hospitals turn away patients. Private doctors are scared of getting near patients. The pain of a broken leg easily causes fever, and raises the question of the day, of the weeks, and that will remain present for decades: is this fever a symptom of Ebola? The doctor is charging 800 dollars. Tina paid 100 for now.
A 24-year old slipped on wet tiles, hit his back and head, couldn’t find treatment… they were sewing items for his funeral at the fashion house. I won’t go on.
When we are not living fear, we are living sadness. Those of us with the privilege of leaving the country to be closer to regular health care are sad. I’ve seen the guilty feeling of each person who left before me. I have comforted them, reminding them that “it is time”. As the UN Chief of Security said: “if you’re not saving lives, why risk your life?” So, soon it will be my turn to leave.
Now, on to those who are saving lives. Medical Teams International, for instance. Andrew, the Country Director, is exhausted, but will not leave. Not now, not yet, not until someone is there to take over while he takes a short break. Right now, he is seeking vehicles on loan from the NGOs who have reduced their work or left the country: vehicles are needed for the MTI teams to transport supplies to health facilities, and to make sure that protocols are being followed, and that supplies such as gloves, chlorine and personal protective equipment is properly used. Right now, people can die of a simple appendicitis, just because hospitals are not available, or because of the fear of hospitals. MTI aims to ensure that health centres around the country are safe and available for regular health issues. Sad to say that we now consider cholera, malaria and typhoid as just regular illnesses – anything, as long as it’s not Ebola! Yesterday, the Médecins sans frontières (MSF) representative informed us of six still-born babies, dead just because their mothers drove or were taken around from place to place looking unsuccessfully for medical get attention.
MSF also has announced a drop of good news: the new Ebola Management Centre at the Elwa Hospital is open, with 120 beds. By next week, they will have increased that to 350 beds, working day and night to do so. They have thought of details such as wall-plugs by each bed so that the men, women, girls and boys with Ebola can plug in their cellphones and communicate with their loved ones during their isolation. The good news are but a drop in comparison with the extent of the spreading of the disease, and the need for more Ebola Management Centres. MSF asks for more support, specialized support, equipment, supplies, PPE’s (yes, we now all know that acronym, personal protective equipment). It’s not complicated: just give!
Then there are all those children, free of virus for now, at least theoretically. They are no longer free. They are housebound, practically on house arrest, as their parents fear for their lives. “No, you cannot go see the football game at the video centre! Too bad that we don’t have electricity, but you are not leaving the house!” Even for that minority who has electricity, and have the tv on all day to accompany them as their parents are away at work: is that a life? It would be fun for one day when you skip out of class, but when you know that schools will not reopen, and that this is all you can do for the coming three to six months, it’s prison. Prison with no exercise hall, with no library, with no new music or movies to watch, no visitors (no friends), not even new inmates, and no educational program to stimulate your mind, as you see the time waste away.
Due to extreme poverty and long civil wars, the majority of the population has not had access to education, let alone quality education. As a result, at least 1 of 2 adults is illiterate. And even before the Ebola outbreak, less than 1 of 2 children were enrolled in primary school. Teacher training, upgrading of schools, efforts to involve the community in education are all being abruptly cut by the Ebola outbreak. When the schools do open, perhaps in three months in some counties, perhaps in six, it will be a traumatized population that teachers – themselves traumatized – will be facing. Parents will fear sending their children to crowded classrooms.
Women and girls. 75% of the Ebola cases are women and girls. We, the women, are most often the first to hug our child, wipe away their tears and sweat, clean up after them, particularly when they are sick. Women and girls are catching the virus faster. As my colleague and friend Adjwoa said to me, and in a message to IBIS, IBIS members and the Danish people: “I tell my children, you stay at home, you do not go out, because if you catch anything, anything at all, I will not be able to hug you, hold you”. Adjwoa stopped and cried openly, opening her arms in an imaginary hug then wrapping them around herself “can you imagine, not being able to hold your child who is sick?”
This started as a brief post on Facebook, writing of the fear and anxiety I witnessed on a small scale tonight. I changed it to a potential blog, to link those anecdotes to the much more impacting reality of a whole country paralyzed by this invisible enemy that is Ebola – we all agree, the United Nations in Liberia and the international NGOs that this is a disaster the size of an earthquake and with longer-term impact. Accidentally, it now reads as an “ask”. The fact is, there is no difference between my identity as me, myself, I, and IBIS at this point: we/I/IBIS are asking people in Denmark and everywhere to contribute to curbing the spread of Ebola in Liberia, providing access to health care for the general population, with or without Ebola. Through education and communication, through social mobilization, we will help raise awareness on prevention of Ebola for those communities that continue to live in disbelief, and provide at least a minimum of education and psychosocial support to make these months of quarantine of communities, counties and an entire country and region more tolerable, as we prepare to take up again our vital, long-term support for increased access to and quality of education
It is now 9:51 pm. I cannot leave this one-bedroom apartment. But I have a computer. I have wi-fi. I can entertain myself to some extent. But then my children aren’t in Liberia with me, I don’t have to work out their fears, reassure them, stop them from going out, keep them busy or entertained, nor do I have to worry if one has a fever that she might, perhaps, I-hope-not, perhaps… have caught Ebola.