By Lisa R. White
An airplane roared down the runway of Liberia’s Roberts International Airport (RIA) and came to a full stop. On this particular Monday twelve passengers disembarked and transported by bus to the old terminal where they were tested for COVID-19.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) and the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) have mandated that all arriving passengers must be tested for the coronavirus. This defensive measure stops the spread of COVID-19 at the airport. Those found positive are transferred to Point of Care Centers.
Thirty-one year old Registered Nurse, Bendu Yeke, works at the airport and lives in a nearby community called, Smell No Taste. Robertsfield was formerly used as a refueling site and a stop over for US Troops during World War II. As American soldiers living in tents in airport vicinity cooked their food, the Atlantic breeze carried the aroma of the food to nearby villages. Local residents could Smell the food but could not taste it.
Liberia finds itself in another war: the war against COVID-19. With more than 1,200 coronavirus cases, healthcare workers tracking cases, caring for the sick, conducting community health initiatives are the frontline of this war. Trying to their best to provide service and care while managing their hunger during extended working hours and sometimes, arduous conditions. Finding food to eat for reasonable prices can be as hard to come by as snow in Liberia.
At 5am, Nurse Yeke begins her daily routine.
“I get up. Tell God, ‘Thank you.’”
Ms. Yeke is the airport’s Expanded Program on Immunization Surveillance Nursing Supervisor. She tests arriving passengers for the coronavirus.
She has a lot to be thankful for: There’s her passion for helping others, her six-year nursing career and her extended family. She lives with four nurses with whom she works, seven children and a grandmother in a three-bedroom apartment. By daybreak, she first makes sure the children have food to eat. Sometimes she leaves for her shifts without eating because the food is not ready.
“Still,” said Nurse Yeke, “I get dressed and go to work.”
She takes a 3-minute motorbike ride to her office — a repurposed container located just outside the old terminal. It has been divided in half: one section is the isolation room for patients and the other, is her office where she keeps infection protection and prevention supplies. She hurries to make final arrangements to prepare herself and the isolation room for the incoming passengers arriving at noon.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control reports over 700,000 confirmed coronavirus cases with over 15,000 deaths on the continent. In Liberia, COVID-19 infections have steadily increased from one confirmed case to over a thousand in five months. More than 70 people in this Republic have died from the disease.
Frontline workers, like Nurse Yeke, risk infecting themselves and their families everyday in the line of duty.
“I took an oath to save lives,” she said, “We can do what we can do. God almighty is our protector. We do the best we can and leave the rest with God.” She added that her belief in God has helped her make it through her long working hours and helped her manage the fear of contracting the virus. That notwithstanding, she said she loves everything about her job.
“Nursing is an art, she stated, “What I love most is the action part. When there is an action, you perform that action and that’s the part I love most.”
She has seen action. She screened incoming passengers at the airport during the 2014-2016 Ebola virus epidemic.
That’s the past. Now in the present, Nurse Yeke focuses on cleaning the isolation room to prepare for a likely eventuality.
“The cleaners are afraid to come in here, so I clean it,” she said matter-of-factly while putting on her latex gloves then wiping down surfaces, making the bed and restocking supplies.
The room is outfitted with medical equipment, a bed and two chairs. Dressed in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) complete with a mask, a face shield, and gloves, she scanned the isolation room. The room is sanitized and the supplies are in place for any potentially infected passengers who may need treatment or psychosocial counseling.
When the passengers arrive, she takes their temperatures and tests all passengers, even the ones that are asymptomatic.
Out of the 12 passengers she tested, two were found positive with COVID-19 and transferred to the Point of Care Center at Star Base in the Free Zones. Her intervention checked the coronavirus at the airport and prevented more people from becoming infected. It’s 2pm. Nurse Yeke has not eaten lunch.
“We know how to prevent ourselves and others from catching the virus,” and, she added, “I make sure that each nurse at the airport is protected. We have our PPE that we use especially when coming into direct contact with passengers. The nurses she supervises work in three eight-hour rotating shifts: 7am – 3pm, 3pm to 11pm, and 11pm to 7am. She is with them every step of the way during most shifts.
“I have to monitor every shift,” she said, “to make sure they do their work properly.”
Long hours and dedication to her work has meant finding food before flights or between them. The daily hectic schedule of supervising shifts, managing supplies and tending to passengers, she said, has led her to leave home without a meal or leave the airport to find food, sometimes at home. Other times she said that she eats at the airport, which she said, “gets expensive.”
“Sometimes I am so busy I forget to eat,” she remarked.
When COOKSHOP, the food delivery service, delivered a free meal to Ms. Yeke as part of its “Feed the Frontline” campaign, she was thrilled. In an effort to give back to Liberia, help strengthen the COVID-19 response and keep local restaurants in business, COOKSHOP has embarked on a fundraising initiative to deliver 200 meals a day from local restaurants to nurses, doctors, contact tracers, the Liberia National Police – those on the frontlines of the response.
“I am grateful. This will impact our lives positively,” she said with a big smile on her face as she received her meal.
She said that the money saved from not buying a meal means more money for her adopted daughter, for breakfast at home or just for her extended family.
Nurse Yeke added that the meals could even help her NPHIL colleagues who struggle financially to pay for the round-trip journey from Monrovia to RIA and pay for lunch.
“If they were to receive meals paid for by the campaign,” she said, “her colleagues could also redirect more funds towards their transportation. “ They, too,” she said, “leave the airport to find food.”
The money raised by the Feed the Frontline campaign will provide over two-thousand meals to frontline workers, like Nurse Yeke.
If you’d like to donate to the Feed the Frontline campaign, log on to Cookshop.biz, Cookshop.org or dial *747# on the Lonestar network. Your donation will ensure frontline workers have nutritious food to eat everyday and more importantly, have the strength to eradicate COVID-19.