It’s been two weeks now. Two weeks of checking my temperature daily, even hourly. It’s a tiny thing, just a momentary inconvenience, but always a reminder that Ebola is a silent killer, and that a mild fever can be its first quiet foreshadowing.
It began when I arrived in Liberia on Sept. 25 to cover the epidemic that has killed more than 4,000 people, nearly all in West Africa. At the airport, and at almost every building in Monrovia, security guards or health workers are assigned to check your temperature with a little electronic gadget pointed at your head.
If your temperature is normal, and if you’ve washed your hands from the chlorine-laced water jug, and rinsed your boots in the chlorine basin, you’re allowed to enter the building. It’s not a foolproof system, but it helps.
Today, back at my home base in Johannesburg after finishing my Liberia work, I’m still checking my temperature a few times a day, and I’ll keep doing it for 21 days – the maximum incubation period for the Ebola virus.
The chances that I have the virus are minimal. But watching carefully for any sign of fever is a way to feel that you’re doing something practical. It’s a way to cope with the anxiety and worry, the fear of the unknown.
I’ve covered wars and disasters around the world for 20 years. I’ve been on front lines from Chechnya and Afghanistan to Iraq and Somalia, and I’ve witnessed the devastation of earthquakes and tsunamis. Nothing is quite like Ebola. When you leave a war zone or an earthquake, you know that the threat is over. When you leave the Ebola zone, you could still be carrying the danger with you.
Of course I wasn’t facing the risks that a health worker must endure. I wasn’t inside any isolation wards. I’m not a photographer or television cameraman, and I didn’t need to go into the most dangerous places to gather the most horrifying images of this crisis.
I interviewed people at the hospital gates, or in low-risk hospital rooms, outside the treatment wards. But even in those places, journalists can catch the Ebola virus, as was shown by the case of a freelance NBC cameraman in Liberia last week. He was flown to the United States for treatment after he became infected with the virus.
Before travelling to Liberia, I had stocked up with an arsenal of protective clothing: rubber gloves, masks, goggles, boots and an impermeable Tyvek protective suit. Aside from the boots, I didn’t use any of it. (Nor did I hire a military-trained bodyguard, as one Canadian TV crew did in an excess of caution.)
These days, experienced people on the ground are advising journalists against the use of protective clothing unless you are inside the high-risk wards. Gloves and suits can create a false sense of security. They can lead to risky behaviour and – unless you are highly trained and carefully supervised – you can easily contaminate yourself with the Ebola virus while you are removing the gloves or suit.
Removing protective gear safely is a 31-step process, under the supervision of a trained specialist, while disinfecting and washing yourself at every step. In Spain, a nursing assistant reportedly briefly touched her face with a glove as she was removing her protective clothing – and became the first case of Ebola infection in Europe.
If you’re not wearing a full suit of protective clothing, you might actually be safer because you’re much more careful about your movements. At clinics and hospital gates, I tried to stay at least two metres away from anyone who might have Ebola. I hired an SUV from an upscale hotel, since ordinary taxis have been used to transport Ebola patients and could be contaminated. Leaving a hospital or any other public place, I disinfected my hands and boots with chlorine sprays before entering the vehicle. But I was always aware that millions of Liberians (Liberia’s population is estimated at 4.3 million) faced the Ebola risks without the benefit of a special vehicle.
My safety measures were essential, but they were awkward and alienating. It broke my heart to be shouting questions to suspected Ebola patients from two metres away, or even from the shelter of my vehicle, while they slumped weakly alone. The distance seemed somehow to be telling them that they had lost the right to human companionship. I can only hope they understood why I was doing it.
When I went out with a Red Cross body-removal team in Monrovia, a Red Cross official told me that he wasn’t recommending gloves any more, because of the risks of contamination while taking them off. But he reminded me to roll down the long sleeves of my shirt, so that I wouldn’t accidentally brush against a contaminated surface. It was something that I struggled to remember. In tropical African weather, I’ve always got my sleeves rolled up. It was a tiny thing, but Ebola exploits the tiniest weaknesses.
As I visited treatment centres and talked to health workers across Monrovia, what struck me was the vast gulf between the West’s often irrational panic and the calm practical attitude of the Ebola workers on the ground. Given enough resources, equipment and treatment beds, they know they can beat Ebola.
The methods are well understood by now: early diagnosis, isolation, support and staff safety. And these methods could easily be learned by the Western health organizations that have often been reluctant to accept the risks of the Ebola zone. “It’s not rocket science,” Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders) emergency co-ordinator Laurence Sailly told me. “It’s like running a hospital with very specific security measures. It’s a lot of logistics and water and sanitation.”
What will always stay with me is the desperation and vulnerability of the Ebola patients themselves: collapsed on the ground, clutching their heads, too weak to move, waiting hours or days for help. Talk to them, or their family members, and you realize that they cannot comprehend the slowness of the world’s response.
“We’re begging the world to come,” said James Zeogar, whose mother was inside an Ebola treatment centre in Monrovia. “If you don’t do something, we are finished.”Report Typo/Error