NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, covering the Ebola outbreak that began earlier this year in Guinea and has spread to neighboring countries.
When we reached her by phone on Sunday, she was in a car “trying to fight an infestation of ants.” Back in her hotel, she shared her impressions.
You mentioned that you’re just back from church.
Yep. I went to listen to sermons just to see if Ebola was mentioned. The Roman Catholic Church has a prayer they say at the end of every Mass against “the dreadful disease of Ebola”: “Hear our humble cry and save our country from the Ebola disaster. By the power of your divine touch, heal all those who have been affected by the Ebola virus and totally free them from the clutches of the evil one.”
And the evil one is …
Was there any crying when the prayer was said?
No crying. But it was heartfelt. Everybody repeated it. It’s printed at the back of the Sunday liturgical celebration: “May your spirit repel and destroy the harm of this dreadful disease.”
You were in Guinea covering the start of this Ebola outbreak. Do things seem different at this stage of the outbreak, in Sierra Leone?
In Guinea, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of panic. There was fear. In Sierra Leone, I’m finding fear, panic, suspicion, denial, a whole mix. What surprised me is the level of denial.
Despite the fact that there have been nearly 2,000 cases and almost 1,000 deaths, people still are in denial?
There are substantial public service announcements, posters with very graphic illustrations of the symptoms of Ebola, and yet people can look you in the eye and say, “Nobody in my family has had Ebola. I haven’t seen it with my own eyes. I don’t think Ebola exists.”
At least nobody here in Freetown is saying it’s the white health workers’ fault as we found in Guinea. But there have still been attacks on health centers and ambulances in Sierra Leone’s Ebola epicenters in the east, which have now been sealed off by troops.
Two American health workers have been infected and are being treated with an experimental drug. What’s the reaction?
This has become a talking point — not so much on the street but certainly in social media, which is very active here in Sierra Leone and in the diaspora. The same for Liberia. It’s coming into the general consciousness, people are discussing: How come it’s foreigners, Westerners? They haven’t said “white people” per se, because Sierra Leoneans are very courteous, but you know that’s what they mean. They are asking how come it’s Western health workers [who have access to the drug] — we have health workers here, too, in West Africa, who are dying.
How do you protect yourself?
With gloves, anti-bacterial gel (I don’t know whether it has the alcohol content it should have to be effective), chlorine wipes, masks for my mouth, I’ve even got thermometers. And other people’s goodwill. I don’t want to pass it on to anyone if I should be infected, and I know Sierra Leoneans don’t want to pass it on to me. You can be as judicious as you try to be but you just don’t know.
Are people changing their behavior to avoid infecting others?
Sierra Leoneans are the most friendly people in the world. But the penny seems to have dropped. It has finally clicked. People are finally understanding that even though you’re friendly, you don’t shake hands. Nobody’s shaking hands. Sierra Leoneans are very big huggers. But there’s no hugging, not even air kissing. Although the smiles are still huge and sincere.
And what kind of reception do you get as a journalist?
They’re grateful to have journalists here, they say, to cut through the misinformation on all sides. But I’m also being told: Make sure you tell the whole truth about what’s happening here.
Is there any hope in this difficult time?
Oh, yes. People are saying, “We’re praying.” It’s through prayer and through carefully listening to instructions and following them [that people have hope]. So you do find buckets of chlorinated water outside hotels, shops, people’s homes, government and other offices. People are doing their little bit.
The idea is to wash hands with the water?
Yes, wash your hands, especially when entering. And it’s prominent on the awareness posters: Wash your hands often with soap and water. It’s an effective barrier.
Anything you want to add?
It’s rainy season and it’s pouring down. Sometimes it makes things feel worse. And then the sun comes out and shines, you feel a little better. When I was in the car battling the ants, it was lashing rain. But the sun has just come out.