In Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, the West Point slum sits on a peninsula that is slowly eroding into the ocean. There are four toilets here to service the approximately 75,000 inhabitants. It is an area where diseases stemming from poor sanitation and lack of running water are common, and it is now the hotspot for one of Monrovia’s worst Ebola disasters.
On the August 16, anger outside of West Point’s makeshift Ebola isolation center became overwhelming. Residents swarmed the clinic, shouting that Ebola was not real, and simply a government conspiracy to embezzle money. They set up improvised ladders and encouraged and helped Ebola patients escape, before going on to loot the isolation ward.
In all, 17 of those suspected of carrying Ebola made their way out of the clinic and into the overpopulated slums. Some made off with items from the ward, including infected mattresses and blood-stained bed sheets.
Although it may seem incomprehensible to those of us who live in the West, the reality of temporary isolation wards, juxtaposed with misinformation about the disease, makes situations like these inescapable.
The wards are often bare cement rooms, full of patients who are in various states of disrepair. Buckets are often provided near beds, but for the most part, nursing staff is sparse. When a group of journalists were taken on a tour through one of these wards, an Ebola patient called out, “I have been here one week…your bring us food.”
Other reports indicate that jobs that should be performed by medical staff have been carried out by families, who are determined to see their loved ones receive adequate care. Understaffing and fear in the medical community means the changing of sheets, washing of clothes, bathing of the patient and feeding have been relegated to those willing to brave Ebola centers for their husbands, wives and children. This, of course, puts further community members at risk, as each exposure to isolation wards means more infections to come.
It is in the midst of this chaos and confusion that those who actually are reaching out for medical care have not been helped. One woman, named Konah, described what happened when her husband fell ill, “My husband called, I called, his brothers called, aunties, we all called on different numbers, but nobody has been able to come so when the sickness got serious, we have to leave him in the room and he has been crying there, but since 5 am this morning no sound, so I do not know what is happening to him.” Her husband’s death was later confirmed to be from Ebola.
Reports of bodies being left in the streets of West Point and nearby neighborhoods for days are also becoming common. Of course, the viral load for someone who has just died from Ebola is immense and this is one of the most contagious times, but no groups have been around to clean up the bodies.
It’s this instability and inability to control West Point that led the government to shut down and quarantine the entire slum. Soldiers and medical personnel were able to enter and retrieve a number of items, such as mattresses and a generator which were stolen from the isolation ward.
The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, justified the quarantine by saying “We have been unable to control the spread due to continued denials, cultural burying practices, disregard for the advice of health workers and disrespect for the warnings by the government.”
Although many of those who escaped were rounded up and put into new isolation wards, it is hard for health experts to say who might have been exposed to the virus in the time that contaminated items and Ebola victims were free within the community.
Liberia has had the highest number of deaths from Ebola despite the disease originating in Guinea. After coming off of decades of civil war, since 2005, Liberia had begun to stabilize. But this fragile new peace looks to be wavering considerably as the death toll rises.