Last week Friday was the first sunny day of the week. Monrovia has been under torrential rains for the past six to seven days, rainy dark days. The day was declared “national holiday” so that all public places can be disinfected. After the early morning rain, a summer like-sun came out. I decided to go for a drive, starting in Paynesville to Mamba Point and New Kru town. Just to see, to get a feel of a city on the verge of panic, facing an invisible enemy.
The streets were nearly empty. The dreadful traffic that moved at snail pace during workdays was clear. A few cars, almost no taxis. The few that ventured out were limited to carry only 4 passengers, one in front and three in the back.
Monrovia is under siege. Attacked by a deadly virus that defies medicine. It is scary. We no longer shake hands, we no longer touch each other and we no longer hold hands. Hugging is out of question. I ran into a friend in a store, we had not seen each other for years. We rushed towards each other and stopped mid-way. We were going to shake hands but stopped, with our palms just a few inches from each other. We joked about not being able to touch each other. The store clerk wore gloves. There was a bucket with chlorine at the entrance, with a security guard sternly ensuring that people to wash their hands in a chlorine water before entering the store. The price of plastic buckets and sanitizers has shot through the roof. Bleach and soap have become more expensive. Some people wear plastic gloves around the clock. In public places, we dodge each other. No touching.
Fear is very palpable and visible people’s faces. For a week, I have not seen a single member of my staff. We work from home. When I returned home from my round-about town, I picked my phone and dialed all my friends and family. “Hey, how are you doing?” “I am here, alive.” “Just checking.” “Hm, this Ebola business.” The conversation went in the same direction. We gave each other the same advises: “Don’t go anywhere you don’t have to go. Don’t visit anyone. Don’t eat out. Wash your hands. Don’t let the children out.” I am about to lose the skin on my hands for washing them so much. Bleach. Everywhere in Monrovia, the scent of bleach is overwhelming.
Radio programs around the clock have turned into discussions about Ebola and biblical hymns. People want to go to church or to the mosque and pray. But then you would sit next to someone else you don’t know. Children playing in the streets, kicking ball could brush against each other. Sweat transmits the Ebola virus. Bodily fluids are to be avoided.
First, there was denial. A senior senator even said that government had invented Ebola to get money from donors. Some religious leaders ask people to pray or buy holy water to immunize them against the Virus. In every building, posters about the Ebola remind workers what not to do and what to do. If you have a headache that doesn’t go away, rush to the hospital. Nurses at times refuse to touch people coming with diarrhea or high fewer. The Ebola symptoms are akin to those of malaria. Malaria is a sort of a rite of passage in our county. Every respectable Liberian has had malaria. But now it is different. Fever, headache, running stomach, indigestion could all be sign of Ebola. And now, when people have these aches, they run away from the hospitals. Where Ebola kills all those brought in. Healthcare workers have been the greatest victims before public opinion accepted that Ebola really exists.
Early July, In Kampala, where I went attend the African Faith Leaders on Post-2015, Dr. Thelma Awori, the Liberian Honorary Consul cancelled a business trip to Liberia where she was taking a group of people interested in aviation services. We were at the conference one day when we learned of the death of the Ugandan doctor, “Dr. Sam” as we all called him in Liberia, one of the first victims of Ebola. We met his wife and his children, including a ten-month baby. The family was preparing to visit him in Liberia during the school vacation. When Princess Sawyer caught the virus, he was the only one who tried to heal her. She died. He died. The brother of Princess Sawyer, our good friend Patrick Sawyer who drove to the hospital while she was bleeding died in Nigeria and caused panic in the mega city of Lagos. He was cremated, with all his belongings. Nigerian airlines stopped their flights to Monrovia and Sierra Leone.
In Bomi, Dr. Sirleaf, the chief county medical doctor died. His son died. His girlfriend died. The rest of the family is quarantined.
The Chief medical officer of JFK Medical Center, the oldest and largest hospital in the country, Dr. Brisbane died of Ebola. Two American doctors caught Ebola, both evacuated. Nine out of ten who catch the virus die. Now medical centers and clinics are shutting their doors.
The level of fear, panic is at its peak. Rumors of dead bodies rotting in homes where nobody want to touch them or call the healthcare workers, because they would have to be “quarantined.” And being quarantined means death. There are rumors about doctors killing people to take their kidneys. Ambulances have been attacked and healthcare workers chased with cutlasses. Bitter cola is now on sale everywhere, even in the form of liquid. They say it cures Ebola. Or prevents it.
The President put it simply: “Ebola is real. Ebola is here. Ebola kills.” On the same day she was to leave the country to attend the US-Africa Summit, she went to Conakry to meet with leaders of Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea. The joint border of Guinea-Sierra Leone and Liberia seems to be the epicenter of the virus. People flee the area and carry the disease with them. In the forest region, where people eat “bush-meat” Ebola has killed many. Traditional funeral services led to the contamination of dozens of people.
Cultural and religious beliefs about death and illness linked with mistrust in anything that has to do with government are the best allies of the Ebola virus. In the first cases in Guinea, one death lead to more than a dozen other deaths. Ebola virus is more potent on a dead body, because the entire body turns into a huge deposit of virus. But one only get it when you come in contact with a sick person.
The level of fear and panic in Monrovia is now akin to that the days of Octopus, in 1992, when the NPFL attacked Monrovia and rockets were dropping at random, killings entire households. The difference now is that we knew where the rockets were coming from, we knew the face of the killer and we could fight back as we did. But this time around, we are fighting a war against an invisible enemy. We once exported violence and child soldiers, now, we could be exporting a deadly virus. But, it can be contained, as said Dr. Peter Piot, who identified the virus in Zaire, in 1976 and named it after the river Ebola.
These are scary days in Liberia. At this rate, we will soon be cut off from the rest of the world. Already, flights are being suspended, borders are being closed. This is the unluckiest generation of Liberians, having lived through a deadly war that went on for decades, blood thirsty dictatorships and Ebola. What else can go wrong? Camus’s Pest or a Kafkaesque story seem to be unfolding, all at the same time.