Ebola and the People: Liberia and Sierra Leone
"Mama Ellen "
Liberia and Sierra Leone, the 2nd and 3rd country to officially be afflicted with the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, are also the two countries that have been hardest hit. While in Sierra Leone official incompetence was the primary factor for the rapid spread of the virus combined with public ignorance, in Liberia, the reverse is true. In Liberia, the people have been the main problem.
"Ebola dar lie meh"
From the moment Ebola entered Liberia, the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been totally engaged in exploring viable options for its eradication. Unlike neighboring Sierra Leone were reports of the outbreak were first met by denial and bogus statements from a hapless minister and initial silence on the part of the President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf quickly joined in the public education campaign and was quick to call upon international partners for assistance. Where the Sierra Leone health ministry initially tried to create the semblance of efficiency in the absence of none, the Liberian government quickly informed the international community that her country lacked the structural capacity, both in terms of manpower and infrastructure to cope with the crisis. There was soon a trickle of volunteer foreign healthcare personnel entering the country to lend their expertise to the fight.
|Boiling Bush Meat|
Unfortunately for "Mama Ellen" however (as she is locally called), the Liberian people have been the problem. Liberia is a country of strongly opinionated people, even when they are wrong. As the first country with modern government in West Africa and a country that was never truly colonized, the Americo-Liberians who ruled the country for a century before the Samuel Doe coup of 1980 never really paid a lot of attention to modernizing the country beyond their own areas. In many parts of Liberia, traditional ways of life and beliefs were the norm and even today the situation is largely true. The war also resulted in the rise of a group of hard headed youths who listened to nobody.
"At least De pipul dae listen"
When news got out that Ebola was spread by wild bats and bush meat, many Liberians thumbed up their noses at the suggestion. Liberians have a particular fondness for bush meat, monkey meat being a national delicacy. Telling the native Liberian to stay away from monkey meat is like telling an American to stay away from burger. On the social video sharing platform YouTube, there are hundred of videos of defiant young Liberians chewing bush meat, posted to tell everybody that they did not believe Ebola was caused by bush meat and they would not obey anybody telling them to refrain from indulging in the pleasure of its consumption. Some are even bragging about eating bush meat on the videos and telling those telling them not to do so to simply bug off. This combination of ignorance and arrogance has been an important factor explaining why in spite of the appeals and moves by "Mama Ellen," Liberia has been hardest hit.
A remarkable incident that may have accelerated the rapid spread of the virus in the country's capital was the decision by some particularly foolhardy and reckless individuals to raid an Ebola clinic, releasing patients and stealing Ebola infected mattresses and blankets from the isolation unit. Though the patients were eventually rounded up and the areas where the culprits came from isolated, the damage was already done. The spread of Ebola in Liberia is now beyond the capacity of the country's health officials and even the defense minister has publicly stated that the virus is now a threat to national security and survival. It was reported last week that the Liberian economy has slid into Ebola fueled recession.
Just a few days ago, an Ebola patient died and was buried in a suburb of the country. The people, fearful that government officials were trying to bring Ebola to their area, went and dug up the corpse that had been buried with al Ebola safety protocols and dumped the carcass unceremoniously on the highway, saying that they did not want Ebola in their area.
The allocation of hundreds of millions of US dollars by the Obama administration and the involvement of the US military in the fight against Ebola in West Africa will be particularly welcome in the affected countries, but most especially in Liberia. The US military is highly experienced in setting up highly specialized field hospitals that can be quickly dismantled as soon as a crisis is over. Liberians also have very close historical ties with America and probably the people will listen more attentively to their traditional patrons.
Sierra Leone also continues to suffer from problems of ignorance of the disease, though not on the same magnitude as in their next door neighbor. This past weekend, on the weekly All Sierra Leone Diaspora Ebola Campaign Forum hosted by Mustapha Wai, (an Ebola discussion forum involving notable Sierra Leoneans, public figures and citizens listening to the latest statistics and hearing from Sierra Leone government officials, radio hosts in Ebola areas and Ebola patients), the newly appointed Operational Coordinator of the Emergency Ebola Committee Steven Gaojia, recounted the story of a notable Imam who had died in a village in Pujehun district.
The Imam was a highly revered figure and widely known when he was alive. As is the custom among the deeply religious people of these areas, it is believed that when the corpse of a religious person has been washed, the water used to wash him confers blessing and helps kids learn. So after washing the corpse, the villagers proceeded to rub the water as potions. Tragically, the Imam had unknowingly died from Ebola and as of Saturday 35 cases were positive in the village and the whole area was under quarantine.
Though there is not much to brag about in the midst of this tragedy, at least, when it comes to the response of the people Sierra Leone is doing a little better than Liberia.