Liberia: 'You Ain't Know Ebola in Town?'

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Photo: Erik Hersman
Downtown Monrovia

Monrovia — The kids chatted happily as they gathered around a community well, carrying buckets and jerry cans to fill with water for their households. They were in a buoyant mood, but it wasn't long before the conversation turned to the deadly virus: "Don't touch me!" the only girl in their midst snorted, pulling back her small frame so that the rubber bucket she held flipped backward over her right shoulder, "You ain't know Ebola in town?"

It was as amusing as it was surprising; and I thought it was money well spent on Ebola sensitization. But her friends hit back: "That thing that scan", a Liberian colloquialism that means "It's only a scheme".

Their reaction epitomizes the mixed views among most Liberians ever since Ebola cases were reported in March after reports that some of their compatriots in northern Lofa county - close to the border with Guinea, the epicenter of the current outbreak - had contracted the disease.

The existing political order at the time is to blame for some of this: rival politicians were in a virtual dogfight ahead to October's senatorial elections (and the next presidential election in 2017 apparently), throwing accusations and counter accusations at those they claim were responsible for the budget deficit the country grapples with.

Some pundits even fueled the degree of apprehension when they started questioning the "actual motive" of the U.S.$1.2 million that health ministry officials projected that they will need to combat the disease.

"They want steal the money; no Ebola here", callers on radio talk shows would allege. This view permeated so widely that when initial reports of new Ebola infections appeared to abate, comedians adopted it as a new fun theme: "Ebola ran away as soon as it heard about the U.S.$1.2 million", a popular on-air personality quipped. Even musicians were quick to put rap lines together for a song titled "Ebola in Town". The new music warns Liberians of the dangers of the deadly virus: "don't touch your friend….no eating something," it blared out of local pubs as dancers crafted new moves that involve no physical contact.

We were all in near panic mode in March following confirmation that samples taken to a French lab came back positive. The Ebola virus had actually crossed over from Guinea as had been feared. "Why they didn't close the border?", some questioned hysterically. "This thing coming killed all of us". Images of East Africa's Ebola victims began to spread on social media, with frightening posts that the disease was capable of "wiping out entire civilizations".

Some have even chosen to abandon the Liberian-style greetings, which involves a firm handshake followed by the characteristic loud snapping of the thumbs and middle fingers.

The act is so common that it's still considered uncultured not to meet an acquaintance's hand, despite constant reminders of the modes of transmission. This prompted my distribution of little bottles of hand sanitizers amongst members of my small household. Everybody is required to carry one along as they take on their daily chores, stopping every now and then to pour the liquid in their palms.

At home, our toddler must find the act amusing as he constantly extends his small hands, crying for the sanitizer to be poured in them. He then mimics the adults around him, except that he also attempts to rub it on his face. What's clearly not fun though is having him play indoors instead of with his mates in the community. Fear of the disease has also put plans for his commencement of daycare on hold, joining many parents who've chosen to keep their kids from school.

Some grocery stores even ran out of hand sanitizers as people scrupulously observed stricter hygienic practices. It took a U.S. embassy circular, apparently meant for U.S. citizens in Liberia, to allay heightened anxiety at the time. It cautioned Americans to take certain steps to ensure their safety, while also emphasizing that the disease wasn't airborne.

Amongst other things, the embassy's 'Ebola updates' said that "transmission among humans is almost exclusively among caregiver family members or health care workers tending to the very ill" and that "a person is not contagious until they are acutely ill". Somehow this information found its way to Liberian platforms and people began to share it with family members and friends.

Not much was heard about the disease in late April and May; health officials were beginning to sound upbeat, suggesting that the country could be declared Ebola free within a given period if no new infection was reported.

And then what seemed like a brief respite was broken in mid-June when the country's Chief Medical Officer Dr Brenice Dahn announced that six people were confirmed to have died in Monrovia's heavily-populated district of New Kru Town. The source of the new infections, she said, was a woman who had traveled from Kailahun District in Sierra Leone - whose government had at the same time announced scores of new infections along its border with Liberia and Guinea.

With this resurgence, confirmed cases of the disease have been reported in a wide geographic region of the country, including areas not so close to borders. But it has also allowed for even more public discourse about whether or not there's Ebola in Liberia in the first place, an altitude some officials of government and ordinary Liberians have publicly scorned: "Let's put the politics aside, this about life and death", they said.

Liberia's heavy monsoon rains, which can aggravate conditions in an already squalid environment in many areas of the country, coupled with a dysfunctional health system and denial of the disease are just the right conditions for the hemorrhage fever-causing virus to thrive. But as Liberians like to say: "This too shall pass."

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