True Heroes of the Ebola Epidemic Never Celebrated; As Corruption marred Liberia’s Ebola Response

Speech Delivered by Award Winning Freelance Journalist Wade C. L. Williams at the Liberia Film Institute, Film Festival Held on June 11, 2015 in Monrovia

Ms. Williams speaking during the festival, hosted by the Accountability Lab’s Liberia Film Institute
Men in Personal Protective Equipment working on the Ebola response.
Men in Personal Protective Equipment working on the Ebola response.

Monrovia- The Ebola crisis is over and we saw the government celebrate Liberia reaching zero new cases just recently at an elaborate program held in Monrovia. I was stunned by the excitement, the pump and pageantry at the events, because I know all too well how dismally the government performed in the early days of the outbreak, something that led to the over four thousand deaths Liberia accounted for. During the height of the epidemic it wasn’t government officials who were risking their lives. It was the health workers, those ambulance drivers who braved the storm picking up the sick and the dying from various locations without rest. Those body baggers and those hygienists who cleaned up the vomit and scraped the floor clean that had been littered with blood; many of them died and are now unsung heroes. The people of West Point who saw the worst violation of their rights in the enforcement of a quarantine that was botched and led to the death of an innocent 15-year-old Shaki Kamara and left others with lifelong wounds. Officials of government were only seen on what I call the clean sites. We covered the frontlines so, we saw them. Many times they would just turn down the windows of their moving vehicles and just peep outside to see the sick and the dying who lined up outside of the few Ebola treatment units waiting for beds. The government at a certain point during the epidemic was angry about the way we reported the outbreak, the images we sent to the outside world about the situation on the ground; the horrors we portrayed in our coverage. But these were the images that the world saw and knew that the epidemic was serious. We did the government a favor by reporting what they were trying frantically to cover up in the early days of the epidemic. Liberia’s Ebola epidemic was prolonged by corruption and a system afraid of transparency and accountability. Everybody in government was trying to get a piece of the ‘Ebola Money’ even if their work had nothing to do with Ebola; but they needed the money for ‘awareness and prevention’. Because of this systematic corruption that went on during the epidemic, the real people who worked on the response/ the health workers are still holding up placards around here over unpaid benefits. But some people in government have built mansions and bought new cars from Ebola money. Children orphaned by Ebola and Ebola survivors have been left to fend for themselves and we have seen no concrete plan to assist them start a new life. The images of men in spacesuits carrying the dead or the sick that were so disgusting to many, was the reality that existed of the death and destruction caused by Ebola.  There were many reports about the epidemic in the early days when the outbreak started but people began to take things seriously when the images started to emerge about the real people who suffered from the disease. We could not edit those images and make them look good because our government wanted a good image outside, it was the reality on the ground, the uncut truth and we portrayed it as such. I am happy that we are having this film festival today, to remember what it was like in those terrible months of the epidemic. They say a picture tells a thousand words and it’s true. Images helped use defeat Ebola and cut it in its tracks. Images brought the world to attention and took the outbreak seriously. Images rallied the world to fight Ebola with us and images brought our communities together to fight the disease with the little means that they had available. The image of a mother wearing plastic bag on her hands instead of  gloves to help care for a dying family member stricken with Ebola was powerful. The image of a child in grief standing near a tree, mourning the death of her mother who had just died from Ebola; that was powerful. The images of men in spacesuits picking up the sick or carrying out a safe burial, in the remote town of Jenewonde in grand cape Mount County, that too was powerful. Together Liberia and the world fought Ebola and together we won through images.

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