Monrovia- In my over thirteen years of working as a journalist in Liberia, I have had to cover so many stories. Some I can recall, others I cannot. But the Ebola epidemic that engulfed the three West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has surely left scars that we all will never forget.
In my coverage of the deadly Ebola outbreak that hit Liberia in March of 2014, I catalogued suffering of men women and children and the people who braved their lives to volunteer in the response to the deadly disease.
The anguish and pain was huge but the resilience to overcome has been insurmountable.
The first thing the deadly Ebola outbreak took from Liberians was their bush meat. Liberians love bush meat but they had to make the sacrifice to stop eating it because the country’s survival was more important than a national delicacy. As the disease began to spread, the government panicked; they hadn’t seen anything like this before and their first response was one of confusion with multiple messages sometimes confusing the public on what to do to stay safe.
During the outbreak, Liberia’s already weak health system was hit hard and exposed for the many flaws that existed and people who managed the health sector came under the spotlight with many raising questions about what happened to all the postwar funding that came from both the government and donors. Many hospitals and clinics had to shut down because they were not properly equipped to counter the deadly disease and many facilities that braved the storm and kept working lost most and sometimes their entire team to the disease. It was a devastating experience for the Catholic run St. Joseph Catholic Hospital; it lost its administrator, many health workers and missionaries to the disease in the early days, which forced it to shut down.
Some health workers cowered and abandoned their jobs as the disease raged on claiming the lives of many of their colleagues.
This vacuum created by the closure of important health facilities and absenteeism by many health workers, left a strain on the health system, therefore people began to care for their own family members who got infected with Ebola and they continued to bury their dead secretly.
By July and August of 2014, the number of new infections soared and soon people began to flood in front of available Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs).
A newly opened World Health Organization run 200-bed ETU at Island Clinic filled up the same day it opened, because of the influx of patients suffering from the disease. But the opening of the Island Clinic ETU brought relief as it created more beds for sick disease and changing the dynamics of the disease transmission.
Liberians at first panicked, when the Ebola hit, because they had not experienced such a disease that forbids kindness and care. The tradition was a member of the family or close friends would help give care to sick relatives or friends even if they were admitted at a hospital or clinic.
Soon some people began to say that the country was cursed and needed deliverance from God. Churches called for three days of fast and prayer to drive away the bad omen that has befallen the nation. Others had conspiracies about how Ebola was a disease brought into West Africa by the West to reduce the population of these affected countries, terming it a biological weapon.
In July, August and September, Liberia witnessed the worst Ebola outbreak in its history. The government was overwhelmed by the outbreak and it began to cry out for help to its international partners and at the height of the response President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf emotional plea to the world saw an outpouring of help from friendly nations mainly the United States of America. But at home certain ways of life had to change drastically.
Ebola began to have a devastating effect on people and their relationship with one another in Liberia. People here no longer could shake hands, hug or kiss on the cheek, which have been the traditional way of greeting one another and expressing a sign of friendship.
Liberians have had to give up some of these key elements in their way of life in order to stay safe. Businesses found a new way of making money as they began to invest more in sanitation materials including chlorine, buckets and hand sanitizers.
I remember there was a time when supermarkets ran out of hand sanitizers because people were buying and stacking them up to stay protected. The constant washing of hands with bleached water and soap replaced ordinary soap and water.
The schools stayed open for a while but when the disease began to spread rapidly, President Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of Emergency and shut down all schools while at the same time laying-off non-essential government employees.
Some private companies downsized workforce to prevent putting people at risk. So many traditional beliefs had to be adjusted or change totally. Instead of the normal washing of dead bodies according to the Islamic or traditional animist religions, Liberians had to surrender their dead to body collection teams for safe burial. The body bags replaced caskets or white cloths and traditional burial ceremonies were halted and replaced by men in white space suits called Personal Protective equipment.
Saying goodbye to a loved one who died of Ebola was not possible because bodies were disposed of even before the family knew it.
I remember I had to intervene in a case of an eight month-old pregnant woman, who became infected with the deadly virus and died along with her unborn child. Her husband Alieu Kanneh watched as the ambulance took her into the ETU, but he never saw her again. He kept coming to the ETU where she was taken, but no one could tell him what happened to his wife.
I met him on my many reporting visits to the Island Clinic ETU and asked him what was wrong and he told me his story.
I called the head of the ETU a Ugandan Doctor named Dr. Atai Omoturo; she checked the record and found that Kanneh’s wife had died the very day she was brought in. I could not be the one to break the news to the husband, so I gave his cell phone number to Dr. Atai and told him that someone from the clinic would call him. After waiting one week, the clinic finally called and told Alieu his wife was forced into labor because of the disease and was too weak to push the baby out. She died giving birth to her baby who also did not live.
The couple had just married in July and by October she was dead to Ebola. Kanneh said there was nothing he could do to bring back his wife and his grief increased whenever he went to their house. He never got to see her or the unborn child and does not know to this day where they were buried.
During one of my many days of covering the epidemic, I met Morris Kromah, 40, who now works with the Liberia National Red Cross. Kromah lost 35 members of his family to the deadly disease. The last person to die from the disease in his family was his 18-month-old baby. Kromah lost his wife, sons, daughters, mother, sisters, brothers and other members of his family to the deadly disease. He was not sure he contracted Ebola because his lab result went missing while being processed in the one of very few labs available at the time. But doctors who treated Kromah confirmed he had the deadly disease.
For weeks he paced before the ELWA-2 Ebola Treatment Unit where most of his family members were treated. He waited for news about his baby but heard nothing and for weeks he slowly mourned, not hoping for anything. He also did not want to talk about his loss when I first met him. He said the thought of losing a relative let alone dozens of them was hard to bear.
“I’m not ready to talk about it now; I am going through so much trauma right now,” he said to me, as I tried to convince him to tell me his story. But he would not for over two months.
Then one day when I was not expecting he would come, Kromah showed up at my office, and narrated the whole story to me about what Ebola stole from him: “My entire family” he told me.
He said he had searched his heart and decided that talking about his loss would help him get healing from the pain he felt inside his heart.
A resident of Chicken Soup factory, one of Monrovia’s slum communities, Kromah told me that his family’s ordeal began when his sister a health worker at a local clinic in Monrovia contracted the virus.
Coming from a deeply entrenched Islamic traditional background where the mother would care for her children and grandchildren even if she has a very big family, Kromah told me that his mother helped to care for his sister not knowing she had Ebola.
The sister died and the family accorded her all the burial rites according to the Islamic religion, few days after the burial, every member of that family who helped to bathe the dead woman including those who washed her beddings began to get sick and one by one they began to die. Kromah took the disease to his family and that’s how he lost his wife and children.
Ebola can only be transmitted via close contact with a sick person, either by touching them directly or by touching their body fluids including feces, blood, saliva or urine. Imagine a mother who has a six-year-old child sick from the disease, that woman will not be able to care for that child unless she has on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
As many women did not have such protection as PPEs, they defied the odds, wrap their hands with plastic bags and take their children to the Ebola Treatment unit. I met a mother at the Island Clinic, she told me that her husband became ill, they called the ambulance but it never came until three days later. Dedeh Sirleaf said she and her children including her six year-old daughter and young baby slept on the same bed with her husband while he was sick and when they finally got to the hospital, he died; leaving her and her children infected with the deadly virus.
Sirleaf and her children were admitted at the Island Clinic ETU and she said every night she prayed for her children to recover. She told me that losing her husband and her four-month-old baby girl to Ebola was a harsh tragedy. Dedeh was elated when her daughter Miatta who doctors had almost given up on bounced back to life and survived the disease.
“I’m so happy my daughter is out today; I never this day would come,” she says joyfully over a cracked mobile phone line after her daughter arrived home.
Dedee has seen it all, she says, watching her husband and baby die to Ebola was the worst tragedy she has ever witnessed in her life. She said watching her children’s condition deteriorate in the ETU almost led her into shock. She was sick but at the same time worried about the survival of her three remaining children, Prince 12, Francis 13 and Miatta, 6.
“Miatta and her brother Francis were very sick, for three days they could not eat or drink anything. I was worried,” she told me. “I begged the doctors to save my children; I watched them grow weaker and weaker every day.”
Dr. Quiah Augustus Garlet treated Sirleaf and her children but says he was thrilled at the way the six-year-old fought for dear life.
“Miatta’s case is so special because her survival was like a miracle,” he says. “She came into the isolation center with a temperature of 40 degrees and that was too high for a six year old.”
“There was a point in the ETU when we thought she was going to die. One night she was gasping and we thought we had lost her. Then suddenly she developed strength and started asking for juice. She was revived.”
I have covered this epidemic from the very beginning and I have seen a lot of human tragedy fall before my eyes. Sometimes after a day in the field it was hard to fall sleep. During the epidemic I endured many nights of horrible nightmares and there were many times in my subconscious that I felt I had become infected with Ebola. My only relief was the elapsing of every 21-day. My 21 days was every month and it never stopped, until Liberia was declared Ebola free.
I witnessed a sad situation in a remote village in one of Liberia’s counties. A schoolteacher brought his sick daughter from Monrovia to a small town of 300 people. Soon he and his entire family were dead and buried in the forest nearby, along with an increasing number of residents.
Though the Ebola numbers are said to be dropping this little town called Jenewonde became a new hotspot for the Ebola outbreak in November, as the disease was reportedly slowing. The town located in Grand Cape Mount County near the border with Sierra Leone, reportedly lost about 10 percent of its population to Ebola since late September. Markets and farms nearby were abandoned.
Momo Sheriff lost his son to Ebola because there was no health care facility in the community. No clinics could be seen along the road into town when I made my first trip there.
The town people told me that if the government took no action, everybody would die. “We are burying two dead bodies today. We don’t know who it will be tomorrow. Every day we have to cry,” he said. Juma Mansaray lost her mother and grandmother on the same day. The community became an outcast in the eyes of its neighbors. During my first visit there, I asked a motorcycle rider to take me to the town because that is the only means of transport. I was shocked when he said to me: “I will only drop you on the road and you will walk there, because we have no dealing with the town, it is cursed.”
I asked him why he felt so and he told me that everyday people died from the town, people from surrounding towns were afraid to go there. The markets were closed because of the epidemic and the people stopped all farming activities because some of the farmlands had been turned into burial grounds. The people of Jenewonde were in distress; they lost people every day. But the now with the epidemic declared over by the WHO, they have begun putting their broken lives back together.
There are many Ebola survivors in Liberia unlike the 90% fatality rate that the disease presented when the outbreak began; the survival rate in the late stages of the disease fell to between 70-50%. Survivors have formed themselves into a union here, they advocate on behalf of others who are afflicted with the disease and also spread awareness about coming to the ETU on time if you notice you are sick or feeling any signs or symptoms of the disease. They now tell you that Ebola is not a death sentence after all and the slogan now is “Early In, healthy out’.
The help from the international community has been tremendous, as we saw the building of ETUs and the setting up of mobile laboratories to test people for the disease. Now the time that it takes to know whether one has Ebola is only four hours rather than four days.
Liberians in and out of the country have seen a lot in terms of the deadly Ebola virus. The disease has brought about absolute global stigmatization with every country in the world taking precautions to prevent Ebola from spreading through their borders; West Africans, journalists and health workers who traveled to the region became soft targets as the disease raged on. The idea was that anyone who had been to the region represented the risk of a potential carrier, so it was either you self quarantine if you are a citizen of the West or you get subjected to rigorous health check if you came from West Africa. This led some to coin the slogan ‘I am a Liberian and not a virus’. I had a trip I had planned for months to the US cancelled because of fear that I might be carrying the virus therefore exposing my audience to harm. The University cancelled my invitation to speak to students on my experience covering the epidemic out of what it called ‘an abundance of caution’. The University’s point was that parents of journalism students were concerned that I might expose them to the virus, considering that a Liberian man Thomas Eric Duncan had travelled to Texas without showing any signs and passed through US and Liberian airports without being detected. I blamed this on the hysteria in the US media rather than hold the university responsible. I guess I was fair enough. Liberia will always remember the Ebola outbreak and the deadly impact it has had on our country and people, but what we will cherish as it all comes to an end, is our resilience to unite as a people and