The Africanists

Insights. Comments. Thoughts. Analysis. Africa.

Fear without borders: You are brain-fucking me

The UN flight stewardess puts her goggles on and places a guard over her a mouth. “Welcome aboard,” she says, and aims a digital thermometer at each passenger’s forehead. “Do not sit in the front rows. We like to keep a distance from you.”

Almost all airlines have suspended flights to ebola affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Experts had advised against a no-fly zone, because the virus does not spread through the air. But ebola has caused wide spread panic. A fear without borders. So the UN set up its own air service to allow aid workers to shuttle in an out. Cargo planes are unloaded at Monrovia airport by men in space suits. The crew aboard the Karel Doorman, a transport ship sent by the Netherlands, have orders not to set foot ashore when calling at the ports of the ebola countries.

“We are in the frontline,” shouts an American soldier in his camp at the Monrovia airport. Armoured vehicles pass by; a helicopter takes off for a patrol flight. More than 2,000 American soldiers are leading the fight against ebola in Liberia. In Sierra Leone, far fewer British soldiers do a similar job. Infections are on the wane in Liberia, thanks to a well-coordinated campaign, in Sierra Leone the aid agencies stumble over each other and the epidemic is not in retreat.

ABC is the motto: Avoid Body Contact. In restaurants, hotels, offices, at roadblocks or at someone’s home: always wash your hands with diluted chlorine, dozens of times a day, until they hurt. Always carry a bottle of antiseptic hand gel. Allow your temperature to be constantly taken. In Sierra Leone, there is a 45 US dollar fine  for shaking hands. Large areas of the country are under lockdown, roads abandoned.

In Freetown and Monrovia shops are open and streets teem with people. Passers-by sometimes touch each other. That’s not so bad. A sick ebola patient only transmits the virus via body fluids (sweat, saliva, vomit, urine, faeces, etc.) by direct contact. He must do so in a short time, because the virus dies quickly outside the host body. If you keep away from patients (who rapidly show obvious symptoms), the risk of infection is extremely small.

Ebola patients quickly fall seriously ill, they can barely stand. All ebola infections can be traced back to a contact during the illness or the funeral. The real frontline is the family and nurses, they run the highest risk. Of the 666 health workers infected so far, 366 have died. Outside a clinic, mouth guards and goggles makes no sense, their use is purely an expression of panic, experts all agree. “You are brain-fucking me”, you are cheating, a Liberian would say in his Pidgin English.

You only see the ears of a hippo, reads a proverb in Sierra Leone. Nature hides many other unseen diseases. Epidemics such as AIDS (39 million deaths in het world) and ebola (since 1976 until the current outbreak 1,500 deaths) are the result of the transfer of viruses from monkeys, chimpanzees and bats to humans in Central Africa. There are more and more people, and fewer forests: people and animals live in closer proximity, nature is disrupted and the transmission of viruses between species becomes easier.

Sierra Leone and Liberia were already among the poorest countries in the world. Five million children have not attended school since July because of ebola. Liberia had 45 doctors for a population of 4.5 million souls. Now all hospitals are closed. A pregnant woman who needs a caesarean section will die. For every one ebola death, 3.8 people die of diseases for which the treatment is no longer available- thanks to ebola. Establishing a basic health care system is the biggest challenge for Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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