Returning to Liberia has been uncanny for me. Instantly, I was reminded of how my previous relationship with the country had been a bittersweet one; the kind where everything moves from foreign to a place where you start to understand people’s lives, their journeys, their truth, their contradictions — all while realizing how much has yet to be unveiled.
It was bittersweet again to meet old friends under the new social etiquette of “no touching,” with the pungent smell of chlorine in the air, on our hands, on our clothes, everywhere. In that void created by the lack of physical expression, there was a deeper connection, a deeper conversation where normally expressing sympathy could be done by holding someone’s hand. There were many moments of silence, knowing we are sharing a time like none other.
The message plastered around Liberia is simple, “Ebola is Real.” Ebola. Hemorrhagic Fever. Highly contagious. Transmission through direct contact with bodily fluids. Ebola Virus Disease. The clinical criteria and epidemiological risk factors are distinct in explaining this unique public health emergency. But it is not these clinical or epidemiological reasons that make Ebola real for the Liberians I’ve come to know. Their reality is shrouded with fear, the fear of the known and the unknown.
To Liberians, Ebola is real because it doesn’t discriminate — Liberians have lost parents, nurses, idealists, leaders, lovers to Ebola. Families face profound sadness, saying goodbyes in preparation for death, silent grieving and the remorse of not offering their loved ones their customary last rites, a dignified burial with a peaceful farewell. Wives and mothers, as primary caretakers remain a group that is at highest risk yet they continue to care for their dying families because they cannot imagine how not to care for those most dear to them till the very end.
For a country where nearly every family lost someone during a long civil war in the not-so-distant past, this outbreak hits deeply on so many levels. Communities still remember what loss of human lives mean, and the long-lasting impact it has on their social fabric. This awareness drives a further duality: coping with the outbreak as communities seek to contain the spread of the disease, while simultaneously trying to regain some level of normalcy. A public health emergency of this nature threatens a breakdown in everyday life — schools, health clinics and hospitals close down, community gatherings come to a halt, neighbors grapple with what to do with children who have lost their parents to Ebola. All around there is a restlessness stirred by uncertainty over how long this way of life will continue.
However, amidst it all, I also saw also tremendous resilience — the quiet kind of humor and courage that only those who have experienced great adversity can demonstrate over and over again. Every day, committed health care workers, knowing the high risks they face in being on the frontline still seek to nurture people back to survival at Ebola Treatment Units. Community volunteers continue to raise awareness and to trace those who may be at risk. Men in burial teams handle contagious bodies and take their social responsibility with a great deal of gravity as they try to respectfully bury the dead.
It is the trust in this resilience that Save the Children has centered its efforts in working closely with communities to contain the spread of this outbreak. Through building Ebola Care Centers, we are engaging communities from the start to identify locations for these centers, train local staff and volunteers, and empower community health workers to provide basic treatment for common illnesses such as malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia. Save the Children will support the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to revive the primary health care system by first ensuring facilities meet the standards of strict infection control, are equipped to triage and refer suspected Ebola patients while being stocked with essential drugs and medical supplies to provide critical maternal and child health services. In recognizing that communities will be faced with children orphaned by Ebola, Save the Children will ensure these children receive appropriate family-based care, including family tracing, reunification and reintegration services while also providing them with services to help mitigate the negative effects of this outbreak on children’s psychosocial well-being.
As Ebola continues to spread at an alarming rate, our humanitarian imperative to collectively respond is undeniable. I know I will be involved until the very end.
This post is part of a special series produced by The Huffington Post in recognition of the threats posed by Ebola, particularly to West Africa. To see all the posts in the series, read here.