Ebola Outbreak Feeds on Fear, Anger, Rumors


"There's a boundary between they and I so there's nothing I can do," he said. "It's not easy. Lost mother, lost a cousin, and then brother and sister are almost at the point of death and they're refusing to go seek medication. ... We're just going to leave it with God, there's nothing we can do more than this."

He pursed his lips and looked at the ground.

Near the open area in front of the homes that held the dead, a small crowd of people had gathered to find out what was going on. The health workers and Kumeh explained what had happened.

"This is government business," an elderly man said. "If they stay here, they will make plenty [of] people sick."

On Tuesday, at the second meeting of the Ebola Task force created by President Sirleaf last weekend, people raised concerns about the slow retrieval of bodies of Ebola victims. What happened in Clara Town on Saturday served as evidence that the collection of bodies is still a problem.

When community members saw that the health care workers had returned to the ambulance empty-handed, the scene quickly descended into chaos. Medical workers looked on as young men placed tables in front of their truck and told them that they would not allow them to leave.

The crowd had grown, and though most of the people there were quiet onlookers, there was a group of angry young men who loudly insisted that something happen.

"This car will not leave here without carrying anybody," one man said.

PHOTO: After a Liberian Ebola response team tried and failed to convince three potential patients to go to a treatment center with them, some angry people blocked the ambulance and insisted they would not allow the team to leave without the sick people.
Carielle Doe/ABC News
PHOTO: After a Liberian Ebola response team tried and failed to convince three potential patients to go to a treatment center with them, some angry people blocked the ambulance and insisted they would not allow the team to leave without the sick people.

Another man told the health care workers that they either take the bodies or the sick, but they would not be permitted to leave Clara Town empty-handed.

The men who had stood on UN Drive and said they wanted a peaceful protest tried but could do little to calm the angry group who had blocked the path of the ambulance.

The health care workers occasionally tried reasoning with the crowd, and at other times they just sat in their vehicle, unable to drive away. These men were now bearing the brunt of a community's frustration with a government many said they felt wasn't doing enough to protect them from a deadly virus.

In the past week, the government of Liberia has begun to enact some solid measures to contain the virus that has been spreading for months. Last Sunday, President Sirleaf held the first meeting of a National Ebola Task force. In the second task force meeting last Tuesday, many attendees said that the fight against Ebola could only be won by a joint effort of the affected countries and the larger international community.

"It really is beyond the capacity of the government of Liberia to control this outbreak," said a high-level diplomat at the Tuesday meeting.

With more than 700 dead, the current Ebola epidemic is the largest to date, according to the World Health Organization. The containment of this outbreak is proving to be a seemingly insurmountable task for the government of Liberia to handle on its own.

Because hospitals were the locations in which the Ebola virus seemed to be spreading the most easily, some of them have temporarily shut their doors to the public.

As of Saturday, two out of four of Liberia’s major hospitals - John F. Kennedy and Saint Joseph’s Catholic Hospital - are no longer accepting patients and some smaller clinics have shut down as well. There are reports that the ELWA hospital emergency room was temporarily closed.

The closures have dealt a severe blow to Liberia’s already struggling health system, leaving many citizens of Monrovia concerned about where they could go for emergency care. For now, smaller clinics and hospitals are bearing the weight of treating the country's citizens.

President Sirleaf has appealed for help from the international community, and in a speech on Wednesday, Sirleaf announced the creation of a National Action Plan that would mobilize the Liberian government to curb the spread of Ebola.

“We have announced a number of stringent preventive measures, issued standing orders to our security forces and restricted movements internally and externally. We will continue to do more as the situation requires,” she said.

Sirleaf requested that people avoid gathering in large groups, as that is a means by which the Ebola virus could potentially spread. But on Saturday evening in Clara Town, in response to what many deemed the government's sluggish response to their request, the community members did just that.

"You're protected more than me," a man yelled repeatedly at a health care worker.

Later, the same worker tried to talk to another man and told him, "Your patient locked the door, how do you expect us to enter?"

The man replied that the Ebola team should have called the police.

"There's an iron gate there, you're not expecting us to burst the door," the worker argued.

As the light began to fade in Clara Town, the worker expressed frustration about the fact that this incident was preventing him from doing his job.

"We've got so many cases all over. They're calling us," he said.

This type of situation can have a multiplying effect, as delays such as this one could cause health care workers to miss other appointments and cause other community members to become incensed and react in ways similar to the people of Clara Town.

At the Task Force Meeting on Tuesday, a senior official from the Ministry of Health said that citizens contribute to the problem of the slow retrieval of bodies in another way because they call the Ministry to pick up the bodies of people who haven’t died from Ebola, and this distracts the removal teams from their actual mission.

Amidst the noise in Clara Town, the health worker who had tried to reason with the crowd said he had called the Ministry of Health and that they were sending a vehicle to pick up the two bodies.

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