Ebola situation is 'worse than war' say Liberians

Monday, 15 September 2014 15:17 GMT

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

Inhabitants of one of the worst hit communities in Ebola-blighted Liberia say the current situation is worse than a war zone.

The country, which suffered a total of eleven years of civil war between 1989 and 2003, has been brought to its knees by the deadly virus, which has now reached nine counties and killed at least 466 people.

According to Mamadee Kamara, a social worker in Lofa County based in Voinjama, community members are fast losing hope, believing that they will soon be dead from the fatal virus.

"It's worse than war," said Kamara. “Everything has come to a halt. There’s no education as the schools and colleges are closed. Businesses are not moving, the city is empty and people are now running away. People are even questioning why they should work, because soon they’ll be dead."

Liberia’s limited health facilities mean there are scant treatment centres for the increasing number of Ebola patients.

On Saturday, a quarantine centre in Monrovia’s West Point slum was looted, leading to fears that the virus will be spread further by contaminated sheets and fleeing patients.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has imposed emergency measures such as community quarantines and a system of medical roadblocks to prevent the virus reaching cities.

West Point has now been fully quarantined, with a nightly curfew imposed in the capital of Monrovia.

The measures have led to comparisons with the Black Death in medieval times, when so-called ‘plague villages’ were quarantined from the outside world.

“I’m worried. I’m worried,” said Kamara, who spoke from Lofa. “If you say there’s a sickness without a cure, and when you get it, you will die, it makes everyone hopeless.

“My concern is those who have died – they have died, but the rest should be saved. But that is not the case. If the recommended measures are not taken seriously, we expect more deaths. I’m not really feeling fine about this.”

As quarantine restrictions spring up across the country, many people fear that being cut off from the rest of the country will leave them starving and stigmatised.

Although not yet quarantined, Lofa is under heavy security, with limited movements in and out.

Residents of Bomi, a county 80km from Monrovia which has already been quarantined, 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.

“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 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.”

Klubo Jangar, another social worker in Lofa County, says isolating the region would not be a good decision.

“If Lofa is cut off, leaving for Monrovia will be difficult, and we have our families there,” she said. “Products and goods will not be able to come in, and NGOs won’t be able to come to help us. It will harm us, and it will mean we’ll be stigmatised.”

Klubo says her work is now difficult because of the virus.

“I am seeing my good friends and family members dying, and I have to be around them, so I can’t tell if I am infected or not. I am so afraid. I used to go and do counselling for people whose families are dying, but how can I go?

“People whose hands I used to shake, or people I used to hug – I do this no more. I talk to them from a distance.”

Many believe that the first step to recovery is convincing communities that the Ebola virus actually exists.

T-shirts are being issued bearing the slogan ‘Ebola is real’ to try to convince people that the virus is a real danger.

“I am afraid Ebola will last longer if people do not accept the fact that the virus is real,” said James Fayiah, an NGO executive in Lofa.

“If they are willing to accept it is real, it will not last long. The government and local and international partners must fight the virus by creating awareness for people and encouraging them to take precautions.

“It’s not easy working with people and every time you’re hearing that seven, eight, 11 people died, or that 12 have gone today, 15 gone tomorrow. It’s not easy.”

The charity Plan International is providing information and awareness messages via radio, 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”.

For now, Liberia’s population prays. Says one Liberian: “Only God can save us now.”

“We know that we will all die one day,” adds Fayiah. “But the way the virus is, we need to be careful because it has no mercy.”