In the shadow of an epidemic: the long-term effects of Ebola
Source: The Tablet In the shadow of an epidemic: the long-term effects of Ebola
My original article is below. Since writing this, I have found out that Moses has once again been laid off from his job.
Moses Barcon was working as an attendant at the Super Petroleum (SP) gas station in the Congo Town district of Liberia’s capital Monrovia when he got the call about his cousin Stephen in August 2014.
Stephen was the family’s rising star, training to be a pastor, equally well thought of by his American contacts and his local congregation. His large extended family was counting on his success and had raised the cash to send him to the US for training at Bible college and were backing him in building a church. When he heard that one of his flock was sick, he went without question.
The call Moses received was to say Stephen had died of Ebola
Stephen’s mother and seven other family members also died. Moses’ own mother visited the bereaved relatives at 4am so as not to be seen and to avoid quarantine. But she had to take care not to touch any of her family, not even to comfort them in their grief.
Stories and rumours of the Ebola virus spread fast. Moses was afraid to go to the funeral in Harbel, 30 miles away from Monrovia. But his boss spotted people offering him condolences, worked out what had happened, and gave him the sack.
Earlier this year, on January 8, 2016, Liberia was declared Ebola-free for the third time. A country gets the Ebola all-clear when it has gone 42 days since the last previous case, twice the length of the virus’s incubation period, but the memory of August 2014 has stayed with many Liberians.
Back then, after a first few cases, news focused on St Joseph’s Catholic Hospital. Open continuously since 1963, the hospital run by the Order of St John of God had to close for three months when nine staff died from the virus.
Ebola is believed to have entered the hospital when a pregnant woman was admitted with severe bleeding, and staff thought they were treating a complication of her pregnancy. The hospital administrator Brother Patrick Nshamdze admitted the woman unaware and was first to succumb to the disease.
In total fifteen of the Catholic Hospital’s staff tested positive for Ebola, and including Bro Patrick nine of them failed to recover. Fr Miguel Pajares, the hospital chaplain, was rushed home to Spain for treatment and died there. Another John of God brother and a sister of the Immaculate Conception, as well as five lay people – two nurses, a lab technician, an X-ray technician and a social worker – also died. It took just 23 days; from August 2 to August 25.
Mrs Christine Attia is Nursing Director at St Joseph’s Catholic Hospital. Christine worked through that whole period and still finds it difficult to talk about her lost colleagues.
She said: “It was terrible. The worst time for us was August when we lost nine staff. Getting people even to come to work was difficult, because at that point the staff were still afraid. It was so hard because you know that colleagues you have worked with, you are not seeing them again. It was so sad. So sad.”
In total, 24 staff from Catholic clinics died of Ebola. Framed photos of the nine from St Joseph’s have been placed over the door at the hospital’s entrance. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was among the congregation at a Thanksgiving Memorial Mass at Monrovia’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2014.
St Joseph’s closed its doors until the end of October 2014 to give the government time to disinfect the entire building. Staff received protective masks, thick gloves and Wellington boots. A revamped triage system greets new patients and keeps suspected Ebola sufferers away from others.
The country and the international community dithered at the onset of the outbreak. After a few cases in early 2014, things went quiet and while rumours and misinformation circulated, the virus spread unchecked. People would hide their own or family members’ symptoms, until the Liberian government launched a hotline number – 4455 – for what they called “contact tracers” to phone in their own cases or report suspicions about others.
A curfew – originally at 6pm and later extended to 11pm – aimed to put a stop to Liberians visiting sick friends or relatives under the cover of darkness, or covertly burying their dead rather than handing them over for cremation.
An American doctor, Tim Flanigan, an expert in communicable diseases and an ordained Catholic deacon from Rhode Island, came in September 2014. Dr Flanigan stayed for two months, going from clinic to clinic, training staff.
All schools in Liberia, including the 60 Catholic schools, had to close, and many Catholic students took part in awareness-raising programmes in out-of-the-way communities. Unlike the state schools, Catholic schools rely entirely on school fees, so there was nothing to pay staff. Some of them – such as the Don Bosco Technical High School run by the Salesians at 8th Street – managed to find a stipend for their teachers to keep them going until they could re-open.
Christine Attia attends Sunday Mass with her family at Holy Innocents, New Matadi – a Salesian-run parish established in the new Millennium in memory of the child victims of the country’s recent civil war. The benches are packed, but there is still no Sign of Peace. A bidding prayer for safety from Ebola has been added to the list.
Christine found out she was pregnant at the height of the chaos at the Catholic Hospital. She said: “It was not easy, especially when I had to wear all the protective gear over my eyes and nose, but we had to manage. The family had to survive.”
A healthy baby boy Bertrand Devin Simon Attia was born in April 2015. Liberia got its first all-clear the following month. Christine is confident they can deal with further outbreaks: “There was no education concerning the virus. That’s why the first outbreak had such a heavy impact. But education messages went out very quickly. Since we were declared free the first time, we have had one or two cases, but at least people were able to take precautions. They knew, they were sensitised, they were aware of the Ebola situation. So later cases tended to be centred only around one family, and did not spread.”
It’s difficult now to see signs of the virus which ravaged the country for almost two years and killed 4809 people.
Emergency ETUs (Ebola Treatment Units) were torn down as soon as the all-clear was given, but people remember the corpses dumped outside, and the sound of human skulls exploding in the crematoria set up contrary to all local custom to disposed of the infected bodies.
Supermarkets, schools and banks still have handwashing facilities at their doors, and at the airport all arriving and departing passengers have their temperatures taken. There is a 20-metre mural on the wall outside the Environmental Protection Agency on Monrovia’s main thoroughfare, Tubman Boulevard, but you are just as likely to see signs educating the public about HIV/AIDS.
But the virus itself is only one part of the Ebola problem.
Some of the estimated 5,900 children who lost one or both parents to the Ebola virus have found homes with distant family members or friends. The government has trusted the care of those remaining to organisations like SOS Children’s Villages, UNICEF, and Plan Liberia while local groups try to place them with host families.
Some are shunned by their new communities and find it difficult to find stability. Those who settle place even more burden on communities that have barely begun to recover from 13 years of war.
Since the 1980 military coup in Liberia, there has been major upheaval in the country every three to five years, including riots, attempted coups, war, and most recently the Ebola outbreak. Politics is another cause of disruption. The country is getting ready for Presidential elections in 2017, and as one observer said: “The fever has already started.”
Meanwhile, Moses finally got a new job at Super Petroleum on January 2, 2016, after 16 months without work. He’s been re-hired on a six-month probation period, at US$50 a month, half of his previous salary. His is rent is $10 a month and if it hadn’t been for a generous landlady, he would have been out of his room a long time ago.
“It’s not easy,” he says, with a rueful smile. In Liberia, it rarely is.