Getting to work

This week has been mainly a good week for me, but even with the good, devastating sadness is hard to escape.

This week has been mainly a good week for me, but even with the good, devastating sadness is hard to escape. I've concentrated on the 'good' stories – the survivor who's now working at the centre, the awesome work of the psychosocial support team, and how the different teams work together to do the best job they can in ridiculously constrained circumstances.

This means I get lots of smiles, some laughter, and to talk to Liberian staff who have a strong sense of pride for the work they're doing and even an optimism that this virus will be overcome – although none of us are really that confident given the way things are going in the region.

A major radio station got in contact on Thursday to ask if I could work with a doctor at the centre to record an audio diary for their Sunday morning programme this week. I got pretty excited about this and spent the next morning over at the centre capturing 'sounds of the centre' on my iPhone voice memo recorder and practicing recording short audio snippets with Dr Citlali, a 34-year-old emergency medicine specialist from Mexico who arrived with me last week. I see her exhausted face dripping in sweat, I smile encouragingly and put a microphone in front of her, 'You've just come out of the high risk zone after your morning rounds. Tell me what you're doing now…'

I also went around the different departments recording the general goings on. I put my microphone near to the noisy hygienists in charge of spraying staff as they go in and out of the high risk zone. 'Give me zero point five. I need zero point five,' they shout as they make up the next batches of disinfectant and slop water around. I recorded the pharmacists who ran through all the medicines they're dispensing for the day – it's relatively comprehensive (pain killers, anti-malarials, antibiotics to treat underlying infections, anti-vomiting drugs and vitamin tablets), but of course no actual treatment for Ebola since there isn't one...

After collecting a morning's worth of material, I got a call from the radio producer saying that they'd decided to work with another NGO for the diaries since they had 'broadcast-grade recording equipment' with them.  I was quite disappointed, because it would have been really nice to do, but I've decided I'll make the piece anyway and see if we can put it on our own website instead. I think it's interesting for people to get a sense of what it's really like in there.

The requests I get from journalists in Western Europe can be interesting. 'Can you arrange for so and so to go live on air on our TV show tonight? We can make the connection using Skype.' 'Er, I'm not sure if you've been to northern Liberia, but we haven't had any internet connection for the past 10 hours and I'm pretty sure, even if it comes back on it's not going to be good enough to stream 'broadcast quality' footage to you..!' 'Oh right, oh. But my producer was very insistent in the team meeting this morning that we want to have a 'survivor' on the show.'

Or the guy from the radio, 'I'm looking for audio diary snippets taken throughout the day, for example, "It's 6am, I'm just waking up and everyone around me is putting on their specialist protective equipment.' The specialist protective equipment can be worn for about an hour maximum at any one time. It's between 40–50 degrees inside the suit and the medics say they lose at least a litre of fluid an hour when they wear it because they sweat so much. They come out looking like they've had a shower.  The idea that we're all putting it on at 6am and wearing it until midnight is a little far from reality, but it shows why it's a good idea to have people speak about how things really are rather than letting journalists present imaginary, scaremongering fantasies they devise from afar...

I was working with one of the Ebola centre's guards this week – a former primary school teacher called Harrison who was the first person to survive Ebola in the centre here at Foya back in June. He lost seven members of his family to Ebola and after living in the centre for a month and being the only one to survive he decided he didn't want to return home, but to stay here and work at the centre 'until we are finished with Ebola in my country.' He's a lot of fun to work with. Serious, but with a big smile and he enjoys the media attention.

Harrison Sakilla, Primary school teacher, Ebola survivor, MSF guard. © Martin Zinggl/MSF

Harrison Sakilla, Primary school teacher, Ebola survivor, MSF guard. © Martin Zinggl/MSF

I went to meet him for the first time on Wednesday. My predecessor here, Martin Zinggl had worked with him on an interview for NPR – the public radio broadcaster in the US – and during our handover in Geneva he'd asked me to make a copy of the interview to give to Harrison when I saw him.

I found the link to the interview which included some nice pictures and the full transcript, so I printed it on our good, colour printer, put it in a plastic wallet and went over to the centre to give it to him. He was working as a sprayer at the entrance to the low risk zone that day. The low risk zone is where all the medical staff work when they're not with the patients (all of whom are in the high risk zone). His job that day was to spray the shoes of every person passing between the low risk zone and the outside world with chlorine and to ensure they washed their hands at the chlorine wash point.

I introduced myself, explained I was coming on behalf of Martin and gave him a copy of his interview. I asked him if he'd be interested in doing more media work if it came up and he was very keen.

The next day we did a Q&A on the Guardian's Ebola blog together – he talked, I typed, and then yesterday we did an interview for the BBC World Service 'World Have Your Say' radio and TV shows. Fortunately the producer agreed to do this as a pre-record, voice only with his photo to use in place of a video image. We escaped what would have been the inevitable, technical disaster of trying to go 'live on air' and were able to sit together and record for them ahead of the broadcast. Even still it wasn't without its challenges.

An hour before we'd scheduled to record, I went into the canteen and was just serving myself some lunch when the BBC guy called to ask if I was ready. 'I will be ready at 2.30pm as agreed, but I'm currently grabbing lunch – I still have an hour before we record no?' 'Ah you thought 2.30pm your time. No it’s 2.30pm our time. Is there any way you can do it now. We're all set up?'

I abandoned my lunch, ran over to the centre and found Harrison with his team collecting his wages for the week.  'We need to go now?' He asks. 'Yes' I reply. 'I'm sorry I mixed up the times. They are waiting for us now.' He looks over at his supervisor, 'Give me ten minutes.' the supervisor responds. I look at Harrison again. He understands from my face that we need to go and calls a friend over to sign for his wages for him.

We rush back over to the office, I grab Harrison a bottle of coke from our fridge, 'just a coke. I really like to drink coke' he tells me, and I turn Skype on ready for the interview. We have one bar of wifi coverage... It's not going to work. 'Stay here a minute' I say to Harrison and I run around our compound holding my phone out and looking for a spot where the coverage is good. I can get two bars in the house, which is better than the office. I find a room where we can probably do the interview without too much disturbance and background noise, run back to Harrison and we find a couple of chairs to take in with us. He's already downed his bottle of coke and so I ask if he'd like some water for the interview. 'No water, just coke I like', so I bring him a second bottle.

The interview goes off without too many problems. We have to record twice as the signal breaks up. Some of the questions are quite convoluted and he looks over at me with a confused face, 'Considering the reaction of your community when you were first diagnosed... .' I press the mute button and tell him, 'they mean what did your friends say to you when they knew you were sick'. I put the microphone back on. 'Oh, when I was sick I was really feeling bad, because no one can come near to you'. I smile at him and nod.

My favourite part is his response to the question, 'are you able to shake hands and hug people now?' 'NO!' He replies forcefully. 'You must not shake hands at this time. You only must say hello. Saying hello is just fine. Shaking hands and touching is how the virus spread. It's not so important to shake hands at this time. It is better to stop the virus than to shake hands.'

But why am I happy that Harrison is such a strict adopter of the new social distancing policy? Obviously it's a horrible thing to have taken human contact out of day to day life here, but I guess I've understood and accepted that life is compromised for now and instead my spirits are lifted by seeing how well people are following these unfriendly rules.

Earlier that day. when I was looking for Harrison at the centre a small upset broke out at the gate as someone tried to pass through without washing their hands. 'You wash your hands' the guard barked at the man. 'I just washed them, I don't need to wash again – the thing I am carrying, it's dirty.' 'No, you wash your hands!' The guard says standing up from his chair. All the other staff nearby join in and start ganging up on the man, 'wash your hands!' They say to him. He follows their orders and walks off with his head down. 'If I see you doing like this again, I report you.' The guard shouts after him as he walks off.

This vigilance, however difficult to live with, is giving people a chance against the virus. It's a chance they desperately need and I guess that's why I feel so happy to hear Harrison talking like this. He's got the message. He knows what precautions to take and even though many would say that he himself is now probably immune, he doesn't care. 'Even if you are not at risk, you can still pass the virus from one person to the next, and what if the next get sick from Ebola?'...

So in short, my emotions are up and down. It's certainly an awful, awful situation, but even if viruses are bad, people can be good.