The Ebola Story

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The sky was the color of ink and the clouds were rumbling as with the voice of a god straining against his bonds. Clearly, a heavy downpour was threatening and perhaps when it came the impact would be severe.

   In the large Guinean town of Guékédou, some hundreds of kilometers from the Liberian-Guinean border, a huge crowd was heading down a dirt road and toward the local MSF hospital. All medical assistances offered by the establishment, as far as anyone could remember, were free of charge and nobody had ever had any grievances against the hospital — at least not were it was concerned. Unfortunately, only a few days ago things had taken a different turn. Already there was talk of ransacking the hospital offices, manhandling its staff members and possibly even burning down the building. Bearing machetes, clubs and gasoline, which could perhaps aid in starting a fire, the crowd of men and women made their way toward the hospital, their mood foreshadowing the clouds overhead.

   The eating of fruits bats had always been a local delicacy, could be traced to decades of years back when the practice had first taken root among the inhabitants of some Guinean towns and hamlets, and had never been a cause for concern; especially since it had never been associated with death or illness, let alone one which nobody could explain. Suddenly disaster struck. Somewhere in a village in Guékédou, a child had died of unexplained causes. Soon after the entire family took ill and passed on as well. A member of the family had been taken to the MSF hospital and, after careful medical examination it was revealed that the relative had died of the Ebola virus, which in 1976 had broken out in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was unacceptable. Here was a practice entrenched by years of acceptance and perhaps as old as the ancestors. Now it was to be viewed with suspicion and perhaps renounced altogether. Pointing accusing fingers at the staff of the MSF hospital and thinking that perhaps they could be held responsible for a mysterious illness which until then had never been known in Guinea, the surging, angry mass of men and women, approached the hospital, shouting at the top of their voices:

  Soon the crowd was ransacking the hospital offices; within a few moments the building was engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the hospital staff had already fled, rescued and taken to a local military base by gendarmes who had been sent to quell the riot.

   The actions of the multitude were, however, hardly a remedy for the situation, let alone the proper avenue through which the people could vent their frustration. Besides, there was as yet no cure for Ebola. A person who contracted the virus had no choice other than to consider himself as good as dead. In the weeks that were to follow, more and more cases would be reported in Guinea, flowing over its borders and beyond.

In neighboring Liberia health officials and government people were taking little or no precautionary measures. To many of the clinics and hospitals in the interior parts of the country, especially those close to border areas, nobody had seen the foresight to distribute protective clothing, which perhaps could have gone a long way in preventing aid workers from contracting the virus. Some of the nurses and doctors hadn’t even heard of Ebola, and least did they know about the dangers associated with handling suspected Ebola patients. The aid organizations themselves, including the Government of Liberia (GoL), were making only half-hearted efforts to bring the situation under control — at least until it became clear that Liberia also had an Ebola outbreak. What was even more disturbing was the fact that despite reports of suspected Ebola cases having entered the country, the local NGOs and GoL were still shuffling their feet. Before long, cases would be reported not only in the interior parts of the Liberia but in the city also. And in the swirling mass of confusion which would follow, the response from the government would at best be inefficient and, at worst, utterly shameful. To quarantine suspected Ebola patients, the Liberian government would select none other than a public school located within the city’s largest slum. The residents seeing themselves as scapegoats and no more informed about Ebola than many people in the country, would resort to mob justice. Several people would get in physical contact with the alleged Ebola patients. Quarantining the whole slum community would be put into effect. Police and soldiers would be sent to suppress the riot. Gunshots would be fired, leading to the loss of life of two people.

   Before then, however, for many Liberian border officials it was business as usual. At Liberia’s various border points immigration people, dressed in desert fatigues, were going about their normal affairs and, while playing the professional, having traders pour oil into their palms. By then Ivory Coast had responded swiftly, closing its boundaries with both Guinea and Liberia.

 Musa Kamara was one of several Guinean peanut farmers who sold their produce into neighboring Liberia, traveling hundreds of kilometers and along mostly unpaved roads. Usually the trip took two days only. By dusk you were to arrive in Nzérékoré and the following day to continue the journey to the Liberian-Guinean border. Unfortunately for Kamara, it had taken him three days just to reach Nzérékoré because the rickety passenger bus in which he was travelling had got stuck in a particularly muddy road along the Guékédou highway. Along with the other passengers with whom he was travelling he had stood for hours by the roadside, waiting expectantly as the bus driver and his carboys, their muscles stretched to breaking point, made whatever efforts they could to get the vehicle out of the mire. Although the waiting had been prolonged so much as to be almost unnerving, it could hardly be compared to the strange sensation which now he was feeling. Already his forehead had broken out in cold sweat. But being usually a man who did not easily give in to weakness, he made the journey to Nzérékoré and, to his surprise, was feeling as sound in health as ever.

    Thus the next morning, having with his bags of groundnuts boarded a bus travelling to the Liberian-Guinean border, he was one of several traders entering Liberia at dusk. It was there that the illness, which he had all along suspected on the road from Guékédou, again showed its ugly head. He had no sooner unloaded his peanut-bags than he collapsed, trembling and sweating profusely.

    Patience Dorbor had for four years worked as a nurse at a local clinic in the Foyah region. Her specialized training she had had at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Hospital and had graduated with a degree from the Tubman National Institute of Medical Arts (TNIMA). Although working at JFK had been exhausting and despite the fact that she received a salary which was a little more than ex-gratia, she relished every moment of the experience. Then she got an employment opportunity from a hospital in Lofa County; the salary was much better. Besides, she would be closer to her siblings. It was at this very hospital in which Patience was working that early one evening a Guinean trader was brought in for medical treatment. The man’s name was Musa Kamara. And he was gravely ill. From his nose, eyes and mouth blood was pouring profusely. It was unlike anything Patience had seen before. But being a trained nurse dedicated to her work, immediately she began attending to the patient. With her were a few other nurses, including a doctor.

    As they attended the trader, most of the nurses, including Patience herself, wore no protective clothing and most of them had not even surgical gloves to wear because there was a severe shortage of them in the hospital; they had no choice other than to administer the task barehanded. However, the trader died two days later.

    A day following the incident Patience boarded a bus and headed for Monrovia, feeling strangely ill. Her mother had sent her a phone call pleading with her to abandon the border hospital without delay; explaining that a virus known as Ebola had just broken out in Guinea; that it was possible it had made its way into Liberia already. That was the first time Patience had ever heard of the Ebola virus. Yet when she arrived in Monrovia she collapsed in sweat and exhaustion.

  As he made his way into the Springs Field airport terminal and sat in one of the plastic seating, he felt slightly ill. Folding his arms across his chest and in an effort to stifle the occasional chill which was making him tremble, he looked impassively at the small crowd of people sitting with him. He didn’t know anyone among them and wasn’t even interested. Besides, he had his own troubles — this illness which had come upon him so suddenly and unexpectedly that he barely had the time to go for a medical checkup. Anyhow he was traveling and perhaps when the plane landed he would go for an examination directly.  To the casual observers sitting along with him in the airport, the ailing man seemed as sound in health as any one of them; just an ordinary fellow awaiting a plane which would take him thousands of miles to Lagos. The man was Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian Ministry of Finance employee who for some reason was making this trip to Nigeria.

  Sitting with his arms clasped to his chest, Sawyer tried to revolve in his mind the incidents of the days earlier. He had two days before arrived at the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital, along with a sister who had fallen gravely ill. The poor woman was drenched in sweat and there was blood oozing from her eyes and nostrils. Holding her in his arms and having already got himself smeared with the blood of his ailing sister, Sawyer looked down in her face and wondered what had happened to her.

  Like most people in Monrovia, Patrick Sawyer had heard of the Ebola virus, which had broken out in Guinea and Sierra Leone and possibly in Liberia even. But to him this just didn’t seem possible, especially since the woman in his arms was no one other than his sister. And although the question of where she could have contracted the virus rang in his ears as if in an echo chamber, he just wasn’t willing to listen. When he was told by hospital staff that had grown suspicious of his close physical contact with the ailing woman to go for medical checkup immediately, Sawyer flew into a rage, thinking that perhaps they thought he had contracted Ebola as well. Shouting at the hospital attendants, he got into his private vehicle and drove off. Now here he was, feeling only slightly better than the ailing sister whom he had accompanied to the hospital a few days earlier. Could it be that he had contracted Ebola? he wondered.

  The gorgeous Ghanaian plane hostess, smiling broadly, greeted Patrick Sawyer as he made his way into the passenger aircraft, dressed in warm clothing and yet hugging himself.

  “Hello,” said Sawyer, his voice barely above a whisper, and having smiled back at the hostess, shuffled down the aisle between the seats and sat down. Beads of cold sweat were streaming down his face; the chill which he had felt a few moments earlier had got only worse.

A few hours later, the passenger plane having arrived in Lagos, Patrick Sawyer got off and made his way into a Nigerian airport terminal. He was hardly out of the airport than the man who would be known as the “mad Ebola terrorist” fell down and lost consciousness.

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