The Danger in Losing Sight of Ebola Victims’ Humanity

Source: The Atlantic


In early April, as the first reports of Ebola began to emerge from Western Guinea, I was invited to attend the first meeting of the Kono District Ebola Response Task Force. Kono is a remote and impoverished diamond-mining district in Sierra Leone, bordering the then-epicenter of the outbreak, Gueckedou. We had just received bad news. One week earlier, the Guinean Ministry of Health had contacted the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Health, explaining that a potential Ebola victim had been carried across the border for burial. In interviewing family members in Guinea, they learned that a 15-year-old boy had died, and his family had brought his body to Boidu Village, Sierra Leone for burial.

The authorities in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, guessed that the village was in Kailahun District, a region south of Kono that also bordered Guinea’s highly-affected areas. But on their list of village and town names, Kailahun’s health authorities saw nothing that resembled the word “Boidu.” Confused, they called Kono’s health officials who looked on their own list of villages—and found a “Buedu” village close to the border with Guinea. They sent a Land Cruiser to the distant community and officials sat down with the chiefs and elders. Indeed, they had buried a boy from the village who had been living with family in Guinea. Before he died, he had been bleeding out of his eyes. Everyone in the household in which he had been staying had since died too.

We sat listening to the story of the boy buried in Boidu village in the dusty office of Kono’s District Medical Officer—one of only three physicians in the public healthcare system for 500,000 people (and he himself does not practice). In the room were local staff from the major nongovernmental organizations working in Kono, as well as representatives from the media and three Paramount Chiefs, the highest of Sierra Leone’s traditional authorities. I was there as the executive director of Wellbody Alliance, a healthcare NGO that operates a medical center in Kono. Each of us had been provided with a print-out of the Wikipedia article on Ebola and a mandate to come up with possibilities for the district’s response.

“I want to see hundreds of volunteers going door to door to get the word out,” suggested one person.

“We should make every Guinean in the district register with local government, and be ready to expel them if the disease spreads,” said another.

The mood was tense in the room. The messages filtering in from Guinea were extreme: “a killer disease,” “bleeding out of every orifice,” “ravaging border villages in Guinea.” Radio broadcasts implored people not to eat bat meat, or touch people who exhibited symptoms.

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