Liberian cap­i­tal reawak­ens

Ebola left it weak and wait­ing for help, but slowly, cau­tiously, Mon­rovia is get­ting bet­ter, writes Lenny Bern­stein

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

ON A DIRT field be­tween two tall plum trees, bare­foot young women played a sur­pris­ingly fe­ro­cious game of kick­ball one evening. Sweat­ing in the heat and hu­mid­ity de­spite the ap­proach of dusk, they bat­tled with the pent-up en­ergy of teens who have been stuck at home too long.

A crowd of 100, maybe more, watched. Speak­ers blared the Ghana­ian hip hop of Sargo D, mak­ing con­ver­sa­tion dif­fi­cult. The spec­ta­tors stood closely to­gether. Some danced, some moved more sub­tly to the mu­sic. Had there been food and drink, this gath­er­ing in Mon­rovia’s Capi­tol Hill neigh­bour­hood could have been a block party.

Barely six or seven weeks ago, it also would have been im­pos­si­ble.

On my first trip to Liberia, near the height of the Ebola epi­demic in Septem­ber, this field was al­ways empty. As the virus tore unchecked through neigh­bour­hood after neigh­bour­hood, schools were closed, work­places shut­tered, sport­ing events can­celled, crowds at the mar­kets thinned and in­for­mal gath­er­ings like the one on Tues­day were not to be at­tempted.

But now, slowly, signs of nor­malcy are re­turn­ing. With the rate of new Ebola in­fec­tions down, traf­fic is up.

Boys play soc­cer and girls play kick­ball, less afraid of skin-to-skin con­tact than they were a few short weeks ago. Busi­nesses are wel­com­ing back a few work­ers – not many, not all at once, but some. Dis­cus­sions have be­gun about when and how to re­open schools with­out reignit­ing the epi­demic. Per­haps in Jan­uary, some say.

For vis­i­tors like me, the re­duc­tion in ten­sion is pal­pa­ble. We wear short-sleeve shirts now, less fear­ful of a chance en­counter with the virus. When we visit the treat­ment cen­tres, as we did in Septem­ber, there are no desperately ill chil­dren ly­ing on the filthy con­crete out­side, no vis­i­bly sick adults sit­ting in the dirt or the back of a taxi, wait­ing for hours to get in. There is no one wait­ing.

Many beds are empty, and new ones are about to open. Re­demp­tion Hos­pi­tal, the sym­bol of Liberia’s in­abil­ity to keep up with the sick and the dead, has been closed. So has JFK Hos­pi­tal’s Ebola unit, a cholera fa­cil­ity quickly con­verted to han­dle the new dis­ease when it burst from hid­ing.

“Fear of Ebola now is go­ing down. It was scary for us,” said Mo­hammed Kan­neh, a young man watch­ing the kick­ball game. “But we can’t for­get. We still do the preven­tion pro­ce­dures. We wash our hands.”

In­deed, no one be­lieves Ebola is yet gone. The virus has shown in the past that it can re­cede, then flare up even more vir­u­lently. Plas­tic buck­ets filled with di­luted chlo­rine seem to be out­side the door of ev­ery business that can af­ford one, and se­cu­rity guards rig­or­ously en­force the hand-wash­ing re­quire­ment on any­one who tries to en­ter. There are even more bill­boards warn­ing peo­ple not to take the lethal virus lightly. “Ebola Na Play-Play,” screams one. But chil­dren will be kept un­der wraps for only so long.

“Grad­u­ally, the kids are com­ing to­gether,” said Geo­vani Brooks, chair­man of the Ebola Emer­gency Task Force in Dolo’s Town, a com­mu­nity of 15 000 an hour out­side Mon­rovia that was quar­an­tined for 21 days when the virus raged through.

“We are not en­cour­ag­ing that,” Am­brose Wureh, di­rec­tor of the Coali­tion Against Ebola, quickly in­ter­jected. “There is a need to still wait.” The truth is that many Liberi­ans never re­treated far from the virus, even in Septem­ber and early Oc­to­ber, when Ebola was do­ing its worst dam­age. In an amaz­ing dis­play of courage, re­solve or lack of op­tions, many went on with their lives, ac­cept­ing the risk of in­fec­tion by rid­ing in taxis or jostling in the mar­ket.

Their odds were pretty good. In a coun­try of more than 4.1 mil­lion peo­ple, 6 525 have been in­fected and 2 697 have died, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion. But those caught by the virus faced a 60 to 90 per­cent chance of dy­ing, de­pend­ing on whether they could find a bed in a treat­ment cen­tre, and how far the dis­ease had pro­gressed if they did.

Peo­ple who were out of work, how­ever, had no money for food and other ne­ces­si­ties. Busi­nesses suf­fered.

“I tried to stay open,” said Amadou Barry, a tai­lor in Mon­rovia. “Business just went down slowly, slowly, and in the end, it just went off.”

Re­cently, Barry has been able to work a few days a week for part of the day.

“We are feel­ing the dif­fer­ence,” he said. “The in­for­ma­tion is go­ing around. The re­duc­tion in the num­ber of Ebola cases is en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to come out.”

Frank Ma­honey heads the Cen­tres for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion team in Liberia. He de­scribed the re­ac­tion he and other ex­perts re­ceived in neigh­bour­hood after neigh­bour­hood as they tried to in­ter­vene to halt the virus.

The ex­pe­ri­ence was a trun­cated ver­sion of the five stages of grief. First, Ma­honey said, came de­nial. Many peo­ple did not be­lieve Ebola was real and wanted no part of out­siders telling them what to do. Next came recog­ni­tion, as Ebola be­gan killing their rel­a­tives, friends and neigh­bours.

Fi­nally came a re­quest for help as they re­alised they could not fight Ebola alone. They “learn by peo­ple dy­ing”, Ma­honey said.

Liberi­ans have a greet­ing they re­serve for friends. “How da body?” they say when they run into some­one they know. It is es­sen­tially: “How are you do­ing?”

Liberia’s body is be­gin­ning to heal. It has a long way to go. It could suf­fer a re­lapse. But it is in bet­ter shape than it was. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

PIC­TURE: MICHEL DU CILLE / WASH­ING­TON POST

HEAL­ING HAND: Em­manuel Saah is about to make his hand­print on a wall of other prints of Ebola sur­vivors at the Elwa3 Ebola treat­ment unit run by Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders. He was re­leased, well again, on Novem­ber 5.

PIC­TURE: MICHEL DU CILLE / THE WASH­ING­TON POST

GAME ON: Girls play a kick­ball match as by­standers watch in the Capi­tol Hill area. A month ago, this field was de­serted.

PIC­TURE: AB­BAS DULLEH / AP

BACK TO LIFE: A Mon­rovia mar­ket gets busy again after months dur­ing which busi­nesses shut down.

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