Life at standstill in Liberia amid Ebola 'plot' rumours

Tuesday, 19 August 2014 11:36 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Liberia, 18 August 2014: DAILY life is grinding to a standstill in Liberia, as people are too terrified of catching Ebola to travel, work or go to school.

Meanwhile, rumours that the virus is a ploy by the Liberian government to attract foreign donors, or that it doesn’t exist at all, are hampering relief efforts.

Residents of Bomi, a county 80km from Monrovia where the deadly virus has already caused 15 deaths out of 41 cases, say they are fearful of going to public places such as mosques, churches or markets.

“Passengers are afraid to travel in commercial cars and public transport, and the virus has created an atmosphere where family members are even afraid to visit their loved ones in neighbouring communities, for fear they are sick,” said one resident.

Quarantine restrictions in Bomi mean no-one is allowed in or out of the region, leading to fears that communities are being ‘abandoned’.

Residents say their daily lives have been radically affected by the lack of food and water, with the cost of living rising by the day and scant medical supplies reaching them.

Many fear starvation as they are left to deal alone with the effects of the outbreak.

“We are praying hard to survive, only God can save us, as the present poor health care here will cause many people to die, and this is very worrisome,” said a town chief.

“We need isolation facilities here in Bomi, full awareness campaigns and no bodily contact, particularly amongst the youth who do not believe the virus exists,” he added.

“We are in a state of great fear with news of more deaths and starvation from every quarter of Liberia,” said another resident. “The death toll must stop or else we will all perish.”

Those who suspect they have Ebola face a difficult choice – whether to stay put, or break the quarantine and flee their homes to find medical treatment.

Sarah, whose husband died from the virus last week, told Plan International that she was running for her life because there is no treatment unit near her home.

She fears that if she is quarantined where she lives in Bomi County, she will not receive appropriate healthcare and medication.

“There’s no health care delivery system, no doctors, no nurses,” said Sarah. “If you even show a sign or symptom of Ebola before an ambulance reaches you, you are a dead person already.”

“I was so afraid because I was told my husband had died of Ebola, so all I could do was to run away for survival,” said Sarah.

Sarah is among many families in Bomi County who fear for their lives due to poor health care in the county.

Rumours and hearsay are rife about the causes of Ebola, and many people say they are confused about exactly how it is transmitted.

Some believe that the virus will disappear when the rainy season ends, and others refuse to acknowledge that it is real.

Young people in particular are refusing to give credibility to the disease, and are not reacting to pleas to avoid bodily contact with others.

“Some people don’t even believe that the virus exists, and that it’s the government’s way of attracting donors to get funds,” said a resident.

“Others do not believe it’s possible to get sick from ordinary body contact. It’s also being rumoured that some of the ‘so-called’ Ebola patients died from an overdose of disinfectants.”

“Others are starting to panic because of the radio reports about whole families who have not survived.”

Many have criticized the Liberian governments’ response to the Ebola crisis, as there are only two treatment units in the whole country.

On Saturday evening a quarantine centre in West Point, Monrovia’s slum area, was looted.

More than 25 Ebola patients are said to have escaped, leading to fears that the virus will be spread further across the crowded capital city.

“There’s no doubt that Liberia is confronted with the largest and most severe Ebola outbreak,” said a Liberian from Monrovia who wished to remain anonymous.

The Ebola virus was first identified in 1976, but international experts say the current outbreak is the most severe recorded in terms of human cases and fatalities.

The outbreak began in Guinea in March 2014 and has since spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and in the last few weeks, in Nigeria.

Plan International is providing information and awareness resources, as well as handwashing and sanitary kits to affected communities.

Plan Liberia Country Director Koala Oumarou said: “With weak health systems and a fast spreading virus, this outbreak is one step ahead of the under resourced response to combat it.”

“To combat the outbreak, actions are needed at different levels. Preventive work through public health promotion, care and treatment units, psychological care, information dissemination and rebuilding public health systems should be top of the list”.