3 August 2014

Liberia: What You're Not Hearing About Ebola - Campaign to 'Kick It Out'

Photo: Boakai Fofana/AllAfrica
Women volunteers pray while distributing fliers against Ebola to passersby and asking them to wash their hands.

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Monrovia — Monrovia's streets were buzzing. In my amazement that an air of normalcy seems to prevail despite the emergency measures, I paid little heed to buckets of chlorinated water at the entrance of a local bank.

"Sir, sir, please.." the security guard called out to me, gesturing to the transparent plastic containers on a wooden chair. It was a familiar site; virtually every point of convergence now has one. Regular hand washing has become the norm, and security guards must ensure there's no exception.

A couple of weeks back it was easy to stumble upon small groups questioning whether or not Ebola actually existed. In the last few days, however, the discourse has changed. You won't be out long before hearing neighbors explain what's being done in their households to avoid the dreaded virus. Usually it's either enforcing hand washing, or people carrying around small bottles of chlorine and bleach in their pockets as they take on their daily chores. But it has taken the death of more than a 100 persons and possibly over 300 infections for this to happen.

Although seven of Liberia's 15 counties have had confirmed or probable Ebola cases, the country's four million population still has the least number of recorded deaths of the worst affected nations. Liberians are looking to capitalize on this in a new zest to "Kick Ebola Out", a trend that has emerged on social media pages. The "NO New Infections" hashtag is also becoming popular.

Vocal politicians who have made use of the country's fledgling democracy to attack the government's approach to fighting the disease in the past, and the vibrant but critical press, have all expressed strong support for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's latest measures to curb the disease. In an unprecedented move, she announced border closures, the restriction of public gatherings, a new travel policy for outgoing and incoming passengers, the provision of five million U.S dollars from an already strained budget, and the deployment of the newly-formed army.

"Anybody caught stoning health workers will be drastically dealt with by the army", Defense Minister Brownie Samukai sternly warned on the morning following the president's pronouncement. He was referring to reports of attacks on aid workers and nurses in rural districts by locals who were suspicious of foreigners wearing hazmat-like suits.

Security forces have now been posted to many health centers, although their presence might not be in as much demand as it was a few weeks back, with Liberians heeding calls to stay away from people showing signs of the disease and to call the "Ebola hot lines". The government also announced it is considering cremating the bodies of victims to avoid contaminating water supplies.

There are fears that the unrelenting rainy season might just be providing the right opportunity for the virus to thrive.So my neighbors were jubilant when a semblance of sunshine appeared at the weekend. "The heat will kill the Ebola," they quipped; but their view was in sync with the Center for Diseases Control "Ebola update" published by the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. It states that the "virus is killed by contact with soap, bleach, sunlight, or drying". Many Liberians now regularly scan the embassy's website for new modes of preventing the disease.

"Our hands will really get white, oh," you occasionally hear a visitor say as he's subjected to yet another round of hand washing before entering a building. Usually, that will be the umpteenth time he's done it that day.

Megaphone-carrying volunteers visited communities to sensitize residents about the dangers of the disease on what has been dubbed "Ebola Holiday", the day the president asked workers to stay home for the disinfection of public and private places. Even though the disease is not airborne and can be spread only by direct contact with the body fluids of the very ill, it's not uncommon to see pedestrians wearing gloves and masks in the streets, while making every effort to dodge passersby.

"No touching" is the common refrain.

Melvin Korkor, the Liberian doctor who survived the disease, has called for improvements to conditions at isolation units. "Some people are dying from depression and poor care at these facilities," he lamented.

Korkor said more lives could be saved if the sick were properly cared for. Although he beat the odds and survived, he now faces another problem: stigma in his community in central Liberia.

Denial and the lack of protective gear for health workers, in addition to what some cynics say is negligence on their part, has caused the death of dozens in the already small medical community of this post-war country. But as health workers abandon hospitals and clinics for fear of falling prey to the virus, a new problem has emerged: no one to treat other illnesses common to the region, especially malaria. This had led a lot of households, including mine, to stack up on drugs and other medical supplies.

Everyone in my small household has taken "preventive doses" of Lokmal, the very effective, but expensive, anti-malaria drug. We have determined that the dangers of falling sick at this critical time far outweigh those of self-medicating. Our toddler's temperature is regularly checked. He apparently enjoys the extra attention, as well as my telecommuting from home, as we ask his nanny not to come in so we can limit his contact with outsiders.

Many institutions have asked non-essential staff to stay at home in observance of warnings against public gatherings, but the essential nature of my spouse's work means working from home is not an option for her. We do, however, make sure she carries along a small bottle of bleach, an upgrade from the "ineffective" hand sanitizer.

The situation in Monrovia now is far from panic mode. The busy traffic still flows normally and some folks frequent entertainment centers, where jokes abound about how scammers are profiting from the heightened anxiety. One account speaks of whitewash solution being sold as chlorine, and another of a swindler pretending to vomit blood in the lobby of a popular hotel sending expats fleeing, when in fact all he was pouring out was kool aid.

Pundits cite what they say is a disconnect between the "alarmist" reportage of some international media organizations and the actual mood on the ground. They say just as Guinea managed to change perceptions and slow down the rate of new infections, it will not be long before we "kick Ebola out" with our new momentum.

Boakai Fofana runs AllAfrica's Monrovia office. Read his earlier blog on Ebola here:

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