In Liberia, the Threat of Ebola Is No Laughing Matter

The virus that is said to have killed dozens in Guinea has apparently made its way to Liberia, and many are taking precautions.

Posted: 03/31/2014 02:42 PM EDT

REPORTING FROM MONROVIA, LIBERIA
Barkue Tubman, a prominent entrepreneur and champion of the arts, stated her view succinctly in a Facebook message:

“Ok people don't be offended but for right now I'm not shaking hands or kissing anyone for now,” she wrote. “No offense but not happening.”

The fear of the Ebola virus has taken hold in this small West African nation and it is having a profound impact on the psychology of Liberia. In churches on Sunday, it was a prominent theme from pulpits, with pastors telling their congregants to take all necessary precautions.

This is a country where it is the tradition for people to greet each other with a handshake that ends in a loud finger snap, where women are typically greeted by kisses on both cheeks.  Both customs, among others, are increasingly being shelved these days.

The panic began two weeks ago, when officials confirmed that dozens of people had tested positive for Ebola and 70 people had died from the virus in Guinea, Liberia’s next-door neighbor. There is also a good deal of travel between the two countries, prompting many Liberians to wonder how long it might take for the virus to enter this country.

The answer came quickly. On Sunday, Liberia’s health minister, Walter Gweinigale, confirmed that two patients had tested positive for the deadly Ebola virus in this country. 

Gwenigale said that one patient had died after returning from a trip to Guinea, the epicenter of the recent outbreak. She died in the Liberian city of Lofa, which is close to the border of Guinea.

The second patient, who is the sister of the woman who died, is being treated in a health facility outside of Monrovia. But the health minister did not identify the medical center “because we don’t want to cause panic.”

Nonetheless, there is widespread concern here.

“People are not just concerned, they are afraid,” said the Rev. Joseph Johnson III, the pastor of the Restoration Baptist Church in Monrovia, in an interview with BET.com.

“The fear is made worse by the fact that we don’t have the kind of medical technology in this country to handle anything like this,” he said. “We don’t have the equipment, the capacity to do the testing or the lab technicians and other personnel. The way things stand now, a hospital can’t determine whether a patient has malaria or the Ebola virus.”

The reaction has not been confined to Liberia. Over the weekend, Senegal announced that its border crossings with Guinea would be closed "until further notice."

The Ebola virus, which is transmitted to human beings from wild animals, spreads by the transfer of human fluids. It has a 90 percent fatality rate.

Tubman is unapologetic about her precautions, although it often leaves her customers and friends a little taken aback.

“This is a serious matter and it’s not a joke,” said Tubman, who operates the Peace Café, a restaurant specializing in locally produced products, in an interview with BET.com.

“We are in a situation where we face a disease that has no cure in a place where there are inadequate health facilities,” she added. “We’re a hospitable people. But we’re in a tropical climate where people sweat all the time. My hands will probably go raw from all hand washing I’m doing these days. But this is something to take seriously.”

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Jonathan P. Hicks/BET)

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