On a journey to the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic, award-winning journalist Sorious Samura follows Liberia’s poorly paid and ill-equipped health workers as they risk their lives to treat the infected and recover the bodies of the dead.
Although the rate of infections in the West African nation of Liberia seems now to be in decline, for months the country has been on the frontline of the fight against the deadly virus.
I'm doing this to have this particular sickness alleviated from my country. I love my people.... I eat alone, my girlfriends do not want to visit me; my friends do not want to visit me...
Since the start of the outbreak last year, around 14,000 people in eight nations have contracted Ebola, killing 5,000. Most of the deaths have been in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Working alongside Liberian investigative reporter Mae Azango and producer Clive Patterson, Sorious films with a Red Cross body collection team who travel around Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, picking up the dangerously contagious corpses of the deceased. Several of the workers have already paid with their lives for doing this job, but the work is vital to keep the spread of infection under control.
Some of them are unpaid volunteers. Robert is one such young man. Fully aware of the risks, he nevertheless believes it is worth the sacrifice: “I’m doing this to have this particular sickness alleviated from my country. I love my people,” he said.
But the work was taking its toll. “I eat alone,” he explained. “My girlfriends do not want to visit me; my friends do not want to visit me….”
Sorious also spent time in an Ebola treatment unit run by Medicin Sans Frontieres – and met Salome, a young woman who had lost many of her family to the virus but had somehow survived its ravages herself.
“It feels like it’s a sickness from another planet,” she said. “Because it has 100 percent severe pain from head to toes. You can even feel the pain in the marrow of your bones.”
But Sorious also encountered deep anger among Liberian health workers. Infuriated by their pay and conditions they were suspicious that the government corruption was preventing the distribution of money donated by the international community.
That distrust of the authorities was also evident in the wider population. One of the emergency response teams had been called to a slum called Red Light, one of Monrovia’s poorest and most densely populated districts and exactly the kind of place where Ebola thrives. A young man, evidently with Ebola symptoms, had taken refuge on a roof. If the paramedics had not arrived in time to talk him down, one of them doctors explained, the gathering crowd below might have taken matters into their own hands and killed the sick man.
“One of the major things that is affecting the country is fear,” an onlooker explained as the patient is loaded into an ambulance. “The health facilities in the country, in the various communities, all is shut down, because of the same fear.”
This remarkable film gives a deeply disturbing insight into what it is like to live in a society gripped by dread of contagion and mistrust of the authorities, a place where no one shakes hands any more, where a mother will think twice before picking up a sick child to give it comfort. But it is also a world in which ordinary people are making the most extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of their community – and indeed the rest of us.
By Sorious Samura
Ebola was named after a river … and that is exactly what this disease is. We have an expression in Sierra Leone that says, “wata nor dae jomp ol,” meaning running water does not jump over a hole, it fills and occupies any hole in its path, so too does this deadly disease. It does not care about your race, your size or your status, as long as you get in its way, you will pay the price. But most outside Africa do not understand this.
To many in the West throughout this last year, the threat of Ebola has seemed quite remote. Frightening, yes, in a general sort of way, but really only something that affects poor Africans. That changed once cases began appearing in Europe and America, but there is still too much confusion and misinformation about the disease.
At Africa Investigates we know that to understand something properly, you have to get on the ground, earn the respect of the people who really know what is going on, and tell their story in their words.
So in early October, we decided to fly into Liberia, which at that time was the country most affected by Ebola with close to 3,000 dead. We wanted to find out how and why this disease had had such a devastating impact on the people of that country and what it was like to live with it in your midst. The best way to do this, we agreed, was to team up with one of Liberia’s award winning investigative journalist, Mae Azango.
After spending years covering her country’s bloody civil war in the nineties, Mae, now somehow found herself on the frontline again, only this time it is a biological war against an unseen enemy. Mae first of all told us about how the disease has further destroyed an already broken school system as the government has ordered all schools to be closed for almost a year. The economy she said was also broken.
To begin to understand what is happening in this country you need to work with at least one of the frontline teams like the health workers, the Ebola tracing team or the burial team.
As it was the Liberian Red Cross who first gave us the nod, we decided to tag along with one of their burial teams that was operating within Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia.
It was a quiet and peaceful morning as Mae and I stood at a safe distance, watching these young men and women slowly get into their personal protective equipment known as PPE. Clearly it was not a straight forward process as they have to make sure that they put on each layer of protection at exactly the same time as their chosen partner so that they can carefully check each other out and avoid mistakes. Watching them it dawned on me the high level of stress that these health workers go through to remove just one dead body – one highly infectious dead body – and theirs was now one of the most dangerous jobs in our world today.
My concern by this time was for the brother of the dead man who was looking after his brother and had single handedly carried his brother’s corpse to this safe house.
“This is an example of the denial Sorious” said Mae. I understand what she means; you cannot blame people for ignoring the government’s advice on how to handle people suspected of having Ebola – this is what years of a governments who have lost the trust of its people gives you; people no longer believe a word of what comes from the authorities, but although understandable, this ignorance is one reason why Ebola has spread.
After picking up their first Ebola victim of the morning, the team decided to drop the body off at the Island Clinic, one of the Ebola Treatment Unit’s (ETUs ) run by the government and there we came across some of the brave health workers who put their lives at risk every day to defeat this disease.
They were not supposed to talk to us but it was clear that they were so angry that the threat of losing their jobs could not stop them. These heroic men and women have all seen some of their colleagues lose their lives in this fight. They told us that decades of chronic corruption and poor governance were the key reasons why Ebola has had an easy ride in the country. Their spokesman told us that even recent money that was given by the international community to fight Ebola was unaccounted for. They were preparing for strike actions for better pay and better working conditions.
As the local boss of the World Health Organisation said to us in the film, the only way to bring this disease under control is to make sure that when someone is sick there is a safe place for them to go. That is where the international effort has been concentrated – in getting in more ETUs, more staff, more beds. So that is how you stop Ebola but when you see the effect it is having all around you, you have to ask how do we stop it in the first place.
Both my own country Sierra Leone and Liberia have suffered years of bloody civil wars. They have broken the infrastructure, particularly the health structures, that these two countries would have relied on so much in breaking the chain of the spread of this disease.
Millions of dollars may have been given to the Liberian government by the international community to help build back these structures but where has this money gone asked the health workers. Over the time I spent in Liberia I heard many Liberians say that perhaps Ebola came to expose their corrupt and poor government.
Maybe it is indeed the time for the international community to pay more attention to how it deals with corruption and also change the way it gives aid to us Africans.
But why exactly should America and the western world care about African countries that fought for and won their independence decades ago? There are no romantics in the foreign offices of the world – behind every hand that is offered to help us there is a voice from a foreign office asking “what’s in it for us?”
Well, first of all, as Ebola has shown us today, how close we all are. We now know that we all live in a global village where if we see our neighbour’s house on fire and we fail to help them, then our house may catch fire too. Ebola is just a plane flight away so that fire can too easily reach us in our comfort zones.
Secondly, poor governance in Liberia and Sierra Leone has led to stunted development and the conditions in which Ebola has flourished. International supporters and sponsors have pumped millions of dollars into these governments – our inability in Liberia and Sierra Leone to halt Ebola shows us that aid has failed us all, those who gave it and those whose lives were supposed to be improved by it. There is now more reason than ever to help the people of these countries find better governments. Maybe Ebola’s message to us all is that it is time to try something new.