The other victims of Ebola in Liberia

‘Liberia faces the risk of a popular revolt against a fragile state.’

Health workers fear contracting Ebola from patients, writes Burke [EPA]

“There are two kinds of fear nowadays in Liberia: contracting Ebola, and contracting any other sickness/disease. The former, cuz it’s deadly; and the latter cuz there’s nowhere to get treated.”

This Facebook post by my young nephew, speaks to the reality of life in my Liberia today. It presents a picture of a helpless people with nowhere to turn, a people who are dying because simple illnesses are not being treated. The question, who’s counting these additional victims of Ebola?

My brother-in-law was near death. He’s a young man in his late thirties who’s not fully recovered from a stroke he suffered some years back. Lately he became very ill. Following his advice, one of his sisters took him to the nearest Ebola treatment centre to be tested. He was turned away because according to staff, he did not have the symptoms. They advised his sister to take him to a regular hospital, and that’s when their nightmare began.

Ebola outbreak killing 70 percent of victims

They visited at least five hospitals and were rejected by each one. They spent the night outside the government’s largest referral hospital in Monrovia, the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Memorial Center after nurses and staff refused to accept them.

The weekend before this happened, the daughter of a member of the House of Representatives died under similar circumstances after being rejected by staff at JFK. Days earlier, a woman gave birth to twins on the street after another hospital rejected her.

The fact is health workers fear contracting Ebola from patients who may think that their illnesses are caused by pre-existing conditions. The fear is real as some of these patients, like my brother-in law, later test positive for Ebola. Yet, there’s a conundrum, because non-Ebola patients are being turned away in huge numbers.

This is the reality of life in Liberia. On the surface life here looks normal. But make no mistake, this is a country gripped by fear, anxiety, frustration, a sense of hopelessness and confusion. In less than five weeks, Liberia’s capital, Monrovia has become the epi-center of the growing Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Each day there is news of the death of a loved one, a friend, an acquaintance or someone that knows someone that knows you.

“What is life,” someone asked me recently. “Life is now a privilege rather than a right,” she added.

The concern here is that if the right steps are not taken, the country could return to the violent days of the past. In a recent statement, the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote, “Citizens are understandably terrified and increasingly desperate.”

The ICG’s statement went on to say, “Liberia faces the risk of a popular revolt against a fragile state that has been very slow to build key institutions…”

A colleague recently expressed the same sentiment. Imagine a people dying from simple treatable diseases, while at the same time confronting the onslaught of a deadly virus. Then there are those with Ebola who correctly heed the advice and get themselves to treatment centres, only to find that there are not enough beds for everyone. Some see this as a true recipe for unrest.  

To avoid this, every effort must be made to stem the spread of Ebola. The challenge at hand is how do we do this given the mistrust of government on the part of the citizens? This is where constructive collaborative efforts involving government, civil society, and the faith-based community are needed. Liberia’s relatively potent civil society sector realises this need and has been on the frontlines, working to spread awareness while at the same time advocating alternatives to violence. Yet some feel that more needs to be done to mitigate the threat of unrest.

Our mission at IREX-Liberia, through the USAID-funded Civil Society and Media Leadership Program is to ensure that the peace Liberia has enjoyed for 11 years, though more fragile now than ever, is sustained. We’ve succeeded in bringing together the Inter-Religious Council and the National Civil Society Council to develop a strategy to serve as a buffer between government and local communities where mistrust of government is so pervasive, and where the bulk of the people who are suffering during this crisis reside.

IREX is also supporting civil society and media groups to organise forums with community leaders and dwellers. The goal here is to try to incorporate the people’s perspective in the fight against Ebola, while also urging restraint and constructive engagement with government amidst the frustration and confusion of these times.

Too many people are dying. Liberia’s future is being depleted, and in many grassroots communities hope is far from reality, and frustration and fear reign. As for my brother-in-law, he died two days later, just another victim of an unimaginable scenario unfolding in the land of my birth.

Bill Burke is a development expert with the USAID funded Civil Society and Media Leadership Program in Liberia (CSML). For five years, he was head of the team that produced CNN’s award-winning Inside Africa.