‘When will we be free of this Ebola?’ It’s a question I’m hearing more and more. People are tired. They’re tired of the fear, of the loss, of the interruptions, and yes, they’re getting a bit tired of seeing us, too. ‘Every day we see the ambulance passing on the way to the cemetery. It is not nice. When will this thing end?’
I had decided to go home early after dinner. I was feeling a bit subdued and wanted to have an early night. The three night watch guards from the guest house where I’m staying greeted me at the gate, ‘How are you Katy? You are back early this evening. You had a good day?’ We chatted and I made them laugh attempting to pronounce the few phrases I’ve learnt in Kissi- ‘Ebola oucho beg bek: Ebola is real.’
They laugh and clap. ‘Very good, very good.’ We continued chatting then after a while one of the guards turned to me looking very serious and asked that question, ‘Will it be over soon? When will we be free from this virus?’
I grimaced, not sure how to answer the question. Ebola cases in this part of the country have declined to a much lower level in the last month or so. We’ve gone from a peak of 120 patients in the Ebola care centre, to only having around 10 for the past four or so weeks. In fact, we haven’t had any confirmed cases in three of the districts of Lofa County for over 21 days- except one patient that had arrived from Monrovia and was admitted before he started to show symptoms. Things are getting better here.
But how long this lull will last is a different question. Patient numbers in the centres just over the border from here in both Sierra Leone and Guinea are very high - reaching capacity even. The outbreak in Monrovia is still out of control and people of course move back and forth. If there’s one thing we know about this epidemic, it is that it is unpredictable - we’ve seen cases decline in one area only to spike again later. So we are quite far from proclaiming any sort of victory. The truth, for the people of Foya, is that they cannot be free of Ebola until West Africa is free of it. And that seems a very long way off.
I attempted to answer the guard, ‘Things are much better here because people are being very careful about protecting themselves from the virus. This is very important, but unfortunately we cannot relax, otherwise we will see people getting sick again. Ebola hasn’t gone away. There are still lots of cases nearby’.
The idea that we can’t see the end in sight is something I can’t really get my head around. I’ve been angry about living in a world where health is secondary to wealth considerations for a long time, but I’m lost for words on this one. I’m in the numb place that’s just beyond anger, where things feel too unfair and the suffering too great for me to feel anything but numb. There’s nothing to say.
We have no vaccine to offer, no means of protection for these people that could allow them to safely resume normal life. We can only tell people to keep a distance from one another, not to go in crowded places. For now the markets and schools have been shut down and the borders are officially closed.
These are emergency measures, but people have been living in this emergency for six months already, and they cannot live like this forever. Already the Women’s Association here is petitioning for the market to reopen. Foya is normally home to a major market for the region, and people are suffering without the trade. Of course it will have to open, but tackling this outbreak is only going to get harder when it does. People need to trade and to travel for work so they can support themselves and their families, and children need to go back to school. If we had a vaccine we could prepare for this far better, but we don’t and we can’t.
This last point has been brought home to me by a remarkable young man this week - MSF’s 1000th survivor. He’s a 16-year old-boy named Kollie James with big dreams and a heavy weight on his shoulders. He may be a survivor, but Ebola has taken his mother, step father, younger brother and sister, uncle and aunt all in the past month.
‘I was good in school, and my teachers loved me,’ he tells me. ‘I love biology because it is the science of life. I want to be like the famous geneticist who discovered how traits are passed from parents to their children. I want to study abroad and eventually become a doctor.’
Kollie James Photo: Katy Athersuch/MSF
He looks hopeful talking to me about his ambitions. ‘If I can do this it will be a good life for me, and a good life for the family I will one day create.’ Reality strikes him and he starts to look worried again. ‘But I don’t know where I will go to school? I cannot go back in Monrovia. Everyone has died. There is no one to take care of me there. If I go back, I won’t have anyone to support me or to pay my school fees and I will not reach my dreams. Ebola has destroyed everything. Everything has been damaged.’
He looks down and starts fiddling with the pen in front of him. He tells me about faith, that he had faith that he would survive Ebola and that he has faith that he will one day study biology abroad.
My faith in the resilience of the human spirit is restored, but not my faith in our world. The world outside of West Africa has become obsessed with Ebola in the last week. Not because it’s claimed the lives of 4,500 people already, but because of a few cases in America and Europe. Maybe this will help to garner the necessary resources to finally get a grip on this outbreak and to develop and test the vaccines and treatments we need to overcome this disease? It shouldn’t have had to come to this. We should have those tools in our hands already, but we don’t.
For now, the schools remain shut and the ambulances keep passing. People here are still living in an emergency and the end is not yet in sight.
Katy wrote this post on 18th October 2014 from Foya, Liberia. For more information on MSF's work tackling the West African Ebola outbreak please visit msf.org.uk/ebola