The victims of the Ebola epidemic aren’t just the dead, but also those they have left behind.
Mercy, 9, and her 17-year-old brother Harris, lived in a neighborhood in Monrovia, Liberia, with their mother Marie until she contracted the disease and died. It was at the height of the outbreak in Monrovia and all of their neighbors were terrified.
“This disease is unlike any other,” said UNICEF Liberia Country representative Sheldon Yett. “Just the shock of people dropping dead from something no one had heard of before, and, the complete stigmatization that children are going through.”
Orphaned, Mercy and her brother had nowhere to go -- and no one would touch Mercy out of fear. Neighbors knew too well the risks of taking in someone who might have been exposed to Ebola.
In the same moment Ebola health workers carted her mother’s body away, Mercy became an outcast.
“They thought I had Ebola, so they were driving me away. I feel ugly,” she said.
The Ebola virus has an incubation period of up to 21 days, which means the infected person with the disease can show no symptoms then develop the disease three weeks later, potentially infecting those around them.
Mercy is just one of roughly 10,000 orphans created by the Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa, according to the BBC and The New York Times.
Perhaps the cruelest part is that people there are faced with a choice between their humanity to help these orphans and their instinct for self-preservation.
As the entire world has discovered, these fears are not unfounded. Sometimes simple acts of kindness have had deadly consequences that stretch across continents.
Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who became infected with Ebola and died in a Texas hospital in October, was one of Mercy’s neighbors in Monrovia. He lived on the same street she did, and carried a sick woman out of a taxi and back into her house, then took off on a long-planned trip to the United States to visit relatives. The woman Duncan carried was reportedly the same woman who infected Mercy’s mother.
Mercy and Harris stayed alone in their mother’s house. Though the Ebola virus doesn’t survive long on surfaces, no one else would enter.
"When Mercy even played among the children, they would say ‘oh don’t play with her before you get the virus.’” Harris said. “They were saying how our mother died from Ebola, their children shouldn’t play with us, we shouldn’t go around them before they encounter the virus from us, I was really feeling bad.”
“My whole thinking now, [if] ebola catches [Mercy], then let it just catch me too,” he continued. “Me and her should die together. That’s what I was really thinking on, because I didn’t want her to go and for me to be left here.”
The Liberian government, with funding from UNICEF, has set up interim care centers around the country for these orphans. Adoption is not allowed in Liberia, so for many of them, there is the only place they can go.
In the care centers, the children have food, clean beds and get much needed human contact with other children as they wait to see if they get past the 21-day mark without getting sick.
“You just break down crying,” said Jessie Hanson, a project manager for Playing to Live, an NGO that works to provide art and play therapy to children in the interim care centers. “So it is frightening. It is hard also to look at these kids and know that they could have Ebola."
Sometimes, family members who emerged from their battle with Ebola arrive at the centers to take their children back home.
For Mercy and Harris, who have known so much pain, an old family friend eventually agreed to take them in. But their story is an uncommon one. Thousands of orphans at the centers have no one to care for them. Some will die in their own neighborhoods, unwanted and untouchable. But Mercy and Harris were given a second chance.
And there is some hope for Liberia. Last week, documented Ebola cases were down to less than one a day, marking that pivotal shift. Schools that have been closed for months are opening again, and for the first time in months, Mercy received a new school uniform and got another chance to be a regular little girl, excited for her first day of school.