Phantoms of a Plague, Part 4

Maureen and Emily enter the relative dark of the market, a cavernous wooden pavilion painted yellow and green. Very little food is being sold. Small eggplants, some onions, lots of date palm nuts, and the occasional pile of okra are scattered across the wooden or plastic folding tables. Toward the back of the market, they find whole fish and butchered meat. Nothing is live, though all of the meat looks fresh. Butchered parts are piled separately—legs, chicken breasts, chicken feet, and fish. Outside, chickens and goats are held in pens. At one point a young girl walks by with bits of charred meat on a platter. It is wild meat—black buck purchased from a hunter.

Bushmeat can be found everywhere in Liberia, even at Stop n Shop. As is the case in most poor countries, protein is hard to come by. Bushmeat often fills this crucial gap in most people’s diets, and it’s unlikely that’s going to change anytime soon. “It’s easy to sit back and say ‘Ok, Ebola’s coming from bushmeat. Stop eating it.’ That’s like saying ‘stop eating food.’ They can’t,” says EcoHealth Alliance scientist Jon Epstein. Still, more data needs to be collected by Jerry’s team before a practical solution can be found.

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UN trucks are still a fixture, as are old roadblocks. Photo Credit: Emily Hagan

And even when one is found, communicating and enforcing it will be another matter altogether. A dizzying number and variety of rumors surround the outbreak, and there is still no focused message from authorities on where the disease came from. This lack of good communication is compounded by a deep distrust of hospitals and government. In fact, many Liberians believe Ebola was unleashed by their own government as something akin to population control. Like HIV before it, others have blamed homosexuality. Still others believe it was a cadre of US Marines that infected West Africa. Running beneath these rumors are phantoms of fear and shame which cling hardest to the survivors. Even those who knew someone with Ebola tangentially are ashamed to speak of it. They feel like outcasts if they were in any way affected by the disease—and yet nearly everyone was in some way affected. “There’s no kind of national effort to try to come to terms with it. It’s still very much in a denial stage. It was just declared over for the fourth time in June. In June! So people know it’s still rumbling around out there and are terrified that even mentioning it will bring it back.” These mental and national wounds will take time to heal. It will take time before people can begin mourning together, instead of apart.

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Abandoned mining equipment. Photo Credit: Emily Hagan

Ebola has sometimes been described as a disease of love. “It’s transmitted through hugging, through crying, through sweat. It’s highly transmissible. Way more so than HIV.” Liberians are effusive, and many now shun the prohibitions on intimate physical contact—but not without a little guilt. “There’s a lot of social interaction and physicality in the culture, as there is in most cultures. You give someone a hug. You kiss your kids goodnight.” As Jerry explains, “people are back to about 80% of their normal behavior. They want to relax.” And yet, a slight apprehension can still be felt among strangers. 

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Headed Home. Photo Credit: Emily Hagan.

If that apprehension is a reminder of the horrors of disease, then the Liberian people’s desire to laugh and embrace each other again is a reminder of something else— the need to forget, if only to bring some semblance of stability back into their daily lives. As the nation starts down the difficult road toward recovery, Jerry Garteh and his team of dedicated scientists are working very hard to remember—to plan for the future given what they’ve seen of the all-too-recent past.