Ebola Diary: The Grave Diggers, The Mistress, The Man On The Porch

October 12, 2014

NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien is on his third trip to cover Ebola in West Africa — to Sierra Leone in July, and to Liberia in August and now this month. He sees big changes. Yet some things remain the same.

What’s your impression this time around?

There is a huge difference. The international humanitarian machine is cranking up. The hotel where I’m staying is packed with people from the U.N. and aid agencies. There’s big vehicles moving people around, construction projects with USAID tarps covering them. There’s very much this sense that the cry for the international community to pay attention has finally been answered.

Do you see concrete results from this revved up response?

It’s not completely translating into changes on the ground. But at least there are people here trying to get things done.

How are Liberians reacting?

People seem happy. I think people were a bit resigned before and didn’t expect anyone to come riding in and fix this.

You’re in Monrovia, the capital city. What’s it like now — and how does it compare to your August visit?

There’s a bit of a sense of Ebola is becoming the new normal. The streets are supercrowded and busy. Despite government declarations that people aren’t supposed to gather in large crowds [to prevent the spread of Ebola], the markets look like any street scene. Traffic was fairly light in August but it’s once again terrible. There are traffic jams. It feels like, in many ways, life has gone back to normal.

And yet it hasn’t.

On the radio everybody is still talking bout Ebola, and there are lots of Ebola songs, some old ones, some new ones, and signs everywhere about Ebola. All schools remain closed.

How is it for you, working as a journalist?

The government put out a declaration this week requiring all reporters to get written consent from the ministry of health before they talk to any Ebola patients or enter any treatment facility or talk to anyone outside any treatment facility.

What’s the reason for this rule?

Politically there’s been this push by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to cut back the press coverage, forcing local journalists to register with the government in a very restrictive way. They have to provide details of who their landlord is, where their newspaper is printed. I think there’s a little bit of a sense that the government is not happy with some of the press coverage and are trying to control it.

Coverage that’s critical of the government? What kinds of criticism have been made?

There’s a growing frustration with the inability of the government to get this outbreak under control. And there was a lot of anger about the way the government responded to the Thomas Eric Duncan issue [the Liberian citizen diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, who subsequently died]. People felt like the government, rather than standing up for him and trying to help him, attacked him. There were threats by the government to prosecute him if he returned home. Some people felt: The man’s on his deathbed with this horrible disease and on top of it his government is blaming him for having brought Ebola into the U.S., when he might have had no idea he was infected.

This crisis is no longer just about a disease. It’s so permeated Liberian society that politicians are bringing it up. The government’s handling of it is definitely now a political issue.

Have the government pressures on the press made people reluctant to talk to you?

I found Liberians, at least for us, are very open and willing to talk to us. That’s not an issue for us.

How do you see the country dealing with Ebola these days?

We went to this amazing Ebola task force meeting in Bomi County, about a 90 minute drive north of Monrovia, the other day, and it just sort of summed up the scope of issues. Bomi has only had 116 cases of Ebola, which is not a whole lot. Yet Ebola has come to dominate everything.

The burial plots are completely full now. The county has a new contract with this NGO [nongovernmental agency] to dispose of the bodies. All burials have to be done by this team. But the NGO doesn’t believe it’s their responsibility to actually dig the hole in the dirt for the grave. So it’s unclear who’s supposed to be digging.

Then there was this guy who went to Monrovia and died. And they couldn’t get a confirmation of whether he died of Ebola because nobody could find the blood sample.

But they assumed it was Ebola?

Yes. And the chief medical officer says, ‘Well, nobody else wants to admit it, but I know who his mistress was and I’m putting his mistress in quarantine.” And there are other people the officer said should go into quarantine but were refusing to go into quarantine. Issues like that are starting to play out.

And they’ve broken ground on one of the 17 Ebola treatment units promised by the U.S. and they’re gearing up to figure out how they’re going to staff it. And people in the town don’t want any Ebola survivors working there because of false rumors that survivors could be infectious.

It was one thing after another in this meeting. Managing Ebola effectively comes down to making sure all the details work right. And things have always been a bit chaotic in West Africa. The meeting underscored just how difficult it is to do everything that needs to be done to make sure this disease gets under control.

Are there enough beds in Monrovia for Ebola patients?

We’re hearing now there are beds available. But yesterday I went to the house where Eric Duncan’s landlord lives. And on the porch of the house where Duncan helped the pregnant woman who seems to be the source of transmission of Ebola [to him], there’s a guy laying out and he’s completely sick. And there’s a woman sitting on the porch in a chair. She’s looking after him.

He likely has Ebola and he’s lying on a porch? And who is the woman — a government health worker?

No. She said, “I’m not from around here, I’ve come to look after him.” She seemed like a friend of the family. So for whatever reason, people who have Ebola are not necessarily getting into the treatment centers.

So things are back to normal and yet nothing is normal.

It is quite clear that this thing is not under control. The question is how you’re going to get this cat back in the bag.

Some reports show that the number of new cases is flattening out.

Maybe they’re leveling off, maybe even starting to go down. But numbers are still so large. There’s a steady stream of vehicles pulling up to the zone where people get dropped off at an MSF [Doctors Without Borders] clinic.

Can you imagine an end to Ebola in West Africa?

It feels like we’re a million miles away from getting to a point where this is behind us.

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