World’s media have moved on but Ebola still wreaking havoc
There is an old media maxim that says: “News only happens where journalists are.” In other words, if no-one is on hand to report on a crisis, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well not be happening. For a while now, this has been true of the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
I spent four months in Sierra Leone, from November of last year until March of this, as part of my job with GOAL. I saw at first-hand many of the effects of Ebola; witnessed some of the human tragedies that lie behind the cold statistics. The memories of people I met, and their suffering, will remain with me always.
Such as the 27-year-old woman from Freetown who, within four weeks, lost 10 of her close relatives to Ebola. These included her mother, father, three brothers, a sister, her grandmother, an uncle, an aunt and a niece.
She told me how fearful she was of the family being struck again, but added: “Although sometimes I think it would be better if Ebola had taken us all, instead of leaving some of us behind to face this.”
Or the two teenage sisters who survived Ebola, but found little to celebrate in the fact. “It was very scary in the hospital,” the older sister told me. “I still have nightmares about it. Every day I would see people dying all around me on the ward. I expected to die myself. Each day I thought: ‘If I don’t die today, then I will surely die tomorrow’. But eventually my sister and I recovered, although she is left with serious eye problems. We were released on the same day.” After being discharged, the girls were informed that they had lost their mother and younger brother to the virus. They then had to move home, after being ostracised by neighbours who were fearful of catching Ebola. Old friends would cross the street to avoid speaking to them; strangers would shout abuse.
I listened to variations of this story from numerous survivors I met. Some people might be fortunate enough to survive Ebola, but they never escape unscathed. Sierra Leone’s many thousands of new widows and widowers, orphans and bereft parents, emotionally and physically scarred and economically destitute survivors are all living testament to that.
Ebola does not respect age or gender. I remember meeting a 20-year-old woman who had felt ill and reported herself to the Ebola surveillance team that I was accompanying.
As we waited for an ambulance to take her to be tested, she asked me where I was from, and thanked me for coming to Sierra Leone to help fight Ebola. She was obviously unwell, but in good spirits, and we continued to chat for the half-hour or so it took for the ambulance to arrive. Within a few days of recounting to me her hopes and dreams for the future, she had died. What a lovely young woman; what a terrible, tragic waste of a young life.
I have just returned home, after spending another couple of weeks in Sierra Leone. The situation has improved since I was last there, but only up to a point.
Last November, GOAL took charge of a new state-of-the-art Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) at Port Loko. The ETC is still operational; still admitting patients. There are another 40 or so Ebola-related GOAL programmes in operation across Sierra Leone. They cover surveillance; monitoring; training health staff; providing psycho-social support to the bereaved and the bereft; caring for orphans and widows; livelihoods training; water, sanitation and general health, and much more.
These post-Ebola programmes are running in tandem with our continuing battle against the virus itself. But it is a difficult and devious opponent. It takes advantage of normal, everyday human activity. The comforting of a sick child, the preparing of a loved one’s body for burial, the handshake upon meeting, or the kiss or hug upon parting, provide all the opportunity it needs.
Recently, with GOAL colleagues, I visited Kafu Bullom Chiefdom where 186 people at 25 houses are living under quarantine. They are all the direct contacts of an ambulance driver. The driver had transported a suspected Ebola patient to a treatment centre, and afterwards cleaned the inside of his ambulance without wearing personal protection clothing. The patient subsequently died of Ebola, as did the driver, and 186 people are now living in fear of having contracted the virus.
Hardly a day passes that news doesn’t come through of another suspected or confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone, often in locations people dared to hope were finally rid of the virus. The capital city, Freetown, for instance, has had three confirmed cases over the past few weeks after going months without any. A few days ago, a 17-year-old boy died of the virus in Liberia, seven weeks after the country was declared Ebola-free.
At the turn of the year, while I was in Sierra Leone, there was wall-to-wall media coverage of Ebola and its deadly effects. It was all anyone was interested in talking about. Inevitably, however, the media moved on to other stories and the public assumed that the crisis was over; that Ebola had been eradicated, or at least was well on the way to being so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ebola is still claiming lives; still wreaking havoc.
But, for the time being at least, as far as the rest of the world is concerned it might as well not be happening.
Davy Adams will be presented with a gold medal on Tuesday at 10 Downing Street at a reception with British Prime Minister David Cameron. The medal is in recognition of his work on the Ebola crisis in West Africa.