Opinionista Lisa Kindervater 20 October 2014

Love in the Time of Ebola

Throughout Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, Ebola is devastating families and destroying livelihoods. My story isn’t that. It doesn’t come close. This actually starts out as a love story, but I’m not sure if it will end as one.

I spent the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 doing fieldwork for my master’s degree in Liberia. This is where I met Freeman. He stopped me on the sidewalk to talk to me. I still don’t know why, of several locals that vied for my attention, I agreed to have lunch with him. But I was drawn to him and within days we were spending every spare moment together. Although we only had a short courtship, when I returned to Canada we spent many hours a week talking about our lives and the lives that we would have together. It was our plan to move in together—probably marry—in South Africa after I took up my PhD studies.

Unfortunately, even before Ebola lit up the headlines, having a Liberian passport meant significant restrictions on international travel. The embassy officials in Abidjan seemed to be engaged in a lot of foot-dragging, evasion, and false compliance (there is just no other explanation for a six-month wait for a simple tourist visa). Flights started to be cancelled, and, sure enough, the plane ticket we had to buy for the visa application was declared null and void. Then, would you believe it? Freeman’s tourist visa arrived in Monrovia the very same day South Africa banned entry of travellers from high-risk countries. And as essential as it may be to us, his doesn’t qualify as “essential travel”.

It was around the same time that Freeman had to close his business (a small bar, or “entertainment centre”) due to the president declaring Liberia in a State of Emergency. Not only was he stuck—he was stuck with no way to earn a living.

After a couple more weeks with no source of income, we hatched another plan. He would travel to Ghana overland (as we don’t have $4-$5,000 USD to spend on a one-way ticket from Monrovia to Accra), where he would spend 21 days waiting for the Ebola incubation period to pass. Then we would try again to get permission for him to enter South Africa. So he travelled to north-eastern Liberia to cross overland into the Ivory Coast. Border closed. He tried again, this time to south-eastern Liberia to try to cross. Border closed. So there he sits, waiting…desperately hoping that all will not be lost following a series of very unfortunate events.

Probably by this point we should take the hint—the universe is conspiring against us—but we refuse to give up.

It seems rather obvious that the current outbreak is as bad as it is because of the extreme poverty that exists in these nations. But it is also because of the stark global inequality that caused so many other nations not to care. To not respond or respond inappropriately by isolating these countries in a time of need. The mass hysteria over an Ebola outbreak occurring among people whose lives actually matter has caused many people around the world to view every Liberian, Guinean, and Sierra Leonean as little more than a vector of disease.

Look, I get that governments are supposed to take care of their own citizens first. But what is sorely needed is a good dose of perspective. In Liberia, the worst hit of the three countries, official statistics cite about 4,000 probable, suspected, and confirmed cases. Since there is a high probability of under-reporting, let’s assume the number is twice that—8,000. If Liberia’s total population is 4.4 million people (World Bank data for 2013 has it at 4.3), the percentage of the total population infected is less than 0.2%. Stated another way, 99.8% of Liberians do not have Ebola. The negative reaction to Liberians in particular thus seems to be grossly disproportionate to the facts.

There is an obvious parallel here to the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The current Ebola hysteria is much like the AIDS hysteria of the early 1980s. Unlike those early days of HIV/AIDS, we know a lot about what Ebola is and how it is transmitted, but there is still a great deal of fear and ignorance surrounding the disease.

What appears to be happening is a widely acceptable form of xenophobia. West Africans (especially Liberians, it seems) are being stigmatised. They are the latest international untouchables. And this doesn’t seem right, especially considering more than 99% of them do not have Ebola.

Moreover, the research shows that Ebola is not as highly contagious as all the doomsday reporting would have you believe. The World Health Organization has been emphatic that Ebola is not an airborne illness. WHO says that Ebola is not transmitted during the incubation period (while the person has no symptoms). That means people are really only infectious when they are visibly ill. Even then you will only contract the virus if contaminated fluids (blood, vomit, faeces) come in contact with broken skin or places like your eyes, nose, and mouth (See, for example, here).

Indeed, governments should certainly be prepared to respond to a potential outbreak within their borders. Isolated cases will surely turn up and they are a cause for concern. But it seems it’s really only those countries with no capacity to respond that are at risk of major outbreaks. Those that have that capacity might want to turn their attention to crafting better public relations strategies to reduce mass hysteria amongst citizens.

My PhD will take me back to Liberia—I won’t change my research project. Although my start date will be delayed, my fieldwork will continue as planned. Since not enough research goes on there in the best of times, it seems especially important that research continue in the time of Ebola.

These days it’s getting harder to communicate with Freeman. The cell service is terrible in his current location and it is very expensive to call when I do get through to him. Our conversations now revolve around his safety and travel plans.

Of life in Liberia these days, he says, “Life is hard. People are afraid of each other. You don’t see people merry-making like before. The streets are empty. The social life doesn’t exist as before…you can’t even shake hands.” And he tells me that struggling to get to the one that he loves makes this situation so much harder.

As for our future together…only time will tell. Always the optimist, Freeman says the whole ordeal will make for a more interesting story to tell our kids. I hope he’s right. DM


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