Liberians have endured economic hardship and a wide range of challenging issues since the country emerged from civil war nearly 20 years ago. But nothing can compare with the challenges the country is now experiencing in coping with the current plague of Ebola.
It is a health issue that has taken over every aspect of life in this West African nation, according to a series of interviews with residents with BET.com. It has set off a panic utterly unknown to this population, with fear of fellow citizens overtaking all aspects of the country’s society.
“Right now, it is gradually becoming a living hell,” said Rodney Sieh, editor of Front Page Liberia, a leading newspaper in Monrovia, the country’s capital.
“Restaurants, for example, are losing business because people are afraid to eat out now,” Sieh said. “No one is really buying much, except for essentials, Clorox and sanitizers. Other preventive agents against Ebola are flying off the shelves of supermarkets and stores.”
In the last few weeks, the country’s Ministry of Education had to shut down temporarily because of suspected cases of Ebola among employees. Airlines have ceased flying their regular routes between Monrovia and several other West African destinations.
Many restaurants have virtually stopped operating because of mounting fears of potentially infected food workers. People have become afraid to ride on public transportation and sit next to each other because of uncertainty of who is carrying the virus. Many schools have closed and the University of Liberia, the nation’s premier college, has shut down for a month. And the Peace Corps announced it was withdrawing its personnel from the country.
Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever which can have up to a 90-percent fatality rate. It can take hold within its victims within days, causing severe fever and muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhea. In several cases it produces organ failure and unstoppable bleeding. Many officials believe that the disease is carried by animals hunted for meat, notably bats.
It spreads among humans via bodily fluids including sweat, meaning you can get sick from simply touching an infected person. With no vaccine, patients believed to have caught the virus must be isolated to prevent further contagion. There is no known cure for the virus.
“Church attendance is reducing and the few who turn up are afraid,” said the Rev. Joseph Johnson III, pastor of the Restoration Baptist Church in the Congotown section of Monrovia. “Chairs are now far apart from each other in the church for people to avoid touching each other.”
Rev. Johnson described a recent incident where a minister’s pregnant wife was refused admission to a hospital because of officials’ fear that potential patients could be contaminated with the virus. As a result, the minister’s wife gave birth on the street.
An older male passenger on a public bus started vomiting one day last week, he said, explaining that the driver stopped the vehicle, ran from the scene along with the other passengers never to check on the sick passenger.”
“The whole country is demoralized,” Johnson said.
Fear of the virus has impacted even the most basic social customs.
“As Liberians, we have a unique culture of shaking hands every time we meet each other even if it’s three times a day,” said Daniel Wleh, a recent graduate of the University of Liberia. “But, because of the fear of Ebola, no one is shaking hands anymore.”
The Ebola threat first emerged in March and has led to the deaths of 729 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The Liberian government, like its counterpart in Sierra Leone, has announced plans to close schools and to conduct home-by-home searches for infected citizens with the assistance of the police and army.
How effectively that might calm the panic is far from clear. And many in Liberia say they feel no cause for optimism.
“As a Christian and someone with faith in God, yes, I believe there is hope,” Rev. Johnson said. “But by medical means that we see currently, it seems hopeless.”
Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan
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(Photo: REUTERS/Edward Echwalu)