I should be on my way to Monrovia at this very moment. Instead I´m still here in Brussels. I don't feel too ill, but I have a bad cold and my head hurts slightly. It's possible I may have a temperature. Such common symptoms are to blame for the fact that I remain here, forced to rest.
“If you were going to Zimbabwe or Central African Republic, there wouldn't be a problem. You would simply get onto that plane and be done with it, but with Ebola we have to be extremely cautious. You have done well in telling us you were not feeling 100 percent well. And as the doctor responsible for your medical care, I cannot allow you to leave until you are fully recovered,” says my colleague Cécile de Walque, medical advisor for Ebola for MSF in Brussels.
Cécile’s decision has all the logic in the world. Yesterday, at the training for humanitarian workers leaving for West Africa, they told us again and again: “When you´re there, your health must always be the number one priority. Watch yourself and watch your colleagues. If you don't feel well, say so immediately. If you see that a colleague is unwell or too tired, and yet continues to work, talk to them and ask them to tell the doctor. If no such conversation ensues, you must communicate it immediately. Do not touch anybody. Do not take unnecessary risks. Keep healthy – for your sake and that of everyone else. You cannot allow yourself to endanger the rest of the team.”
And so this morning, without having taken one step in the field, I find myself having to apply the golden rules. “If that small cold ends up becoming flu, not only will you be unable to work, but you will generate unease amongst your colleagues” says Cécile. “And don’t forget that you could also infect them with the virus. Even if it is only a cold, imagine how it would feel for someone who is being subjected to the stress of facing Ebola if they began experiencing similar symptoms, at least initially, to the virus against which they´re fighting. So, regretfully, you´re staying here until we see how you get on.”
So there we are. Understood. I just have a cold, but let´s see if tomorrow I wake up fully recovered, and if I succeed in leaving my enforced confinement by the afternoon.
I’m not alone: this morning at breakfast I met another colleague who is just as confined as me, although for significantly different reasons. His name is Douglas Lyon, he's an American doctor and epidemiologist who has just returned from Sierra Leone, where he spent the past six weeks treating Ebola patients. He is here for two reasons: on the one hand, he is keen to share his experience with the medical staff at the Brussels office. He has written a detailed end-of-mission report from which he firmly believes there are valuable lessons to draw.
The second reason for him remaining here – and I believe this one has at least as much weight as the first – is that he does not want to return to the United States. He's up to date on what happened to our colleague Kaci Hickox in New Jersey, who has been widely criticised for refusing to remain confined in her house for a 21-day quarantine period, and he is unwilling to suffer the same fate. Moreover, yesterday he received a letter from the Health Department of the State of Oregon asking him to sign some kind of contract if he insisted on returning: a promise that he would stay put during the next 15 days – that he wouldn’t go to the movies or any place where there are many people, and that he would limit himself to buying only essentials in shops close to his house.
Douglas doesn´t know what to do. He has doubts about signing, and is increasingly inclined to stay on in Europe and visit a friend who works at the World Health Organization in Geneva, who happens to have also been working in Sierra Leone. “In Geneva, it is enough to be close to a hospital certified capable of dealing with Ebola patients and, as long as we keep our colleagues in Brussels informed about any possible symptoms, I don´t think they will make any problems if I dare to venture out into the streets.”
So here we are, both of us: lost in the transition that exists between our homes and the field, sharing our hopes and experiences in a café in the centre of Brussels, whilst Ebola continues to direct our lives and end the lives of hundreds of others just a few thousand kilometres from here.
Fernando G Calero is a communications officer for Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF), currently working in Monrovia, Liberia. Fernando wrote this post on 1st November 2014.