Ebola virus outbreak: A first-hand Liberian tragedy – 'We begged, take the baby to hospital... They refused'

Authorities are overcome by the epidemic. Gabriella Jozwiak reports

Princess Mayers sobs as she describes how Ebola has destroyed her life. The 17-year-old Liberian, whose story The Independent featured in May, had already suffered profoundly before the deadly virus struck the country.

Aged 14 and an orphan, she was forced to work as a prostitute to survive, and bore a child. A British charity called Street Child found her in the streets of West Point, one of the largest slums in the capital, Monrovia. It intervened and set Princess and her daughter on a path towards a brighter future. But because of the impact of Ebola, she is now struggling to go on. And her baby is dead.

The Ebola epidemic has claimed more than 2,600 lives across West Africa, with more than half of those deaths in Liberia. Last week, Barack Obama called the outbreak “a threat to global security”, and announced that he would send 3,000 US troops to affected regions.

Princess’s child Angie did not die of Ebola. She fell ill two weeks after her first birthday. At the time, the government had quarantined the West Point slum where she lived. Princess’s aunt, Beatrice Johnson, who cared for Angie, tried to find help. But the only clinic in West Point had run out of medicine.

“We begged security to allow the baby to be taken to a hospital outside of the quarantine, but they refused for three days,” says Street Child’s director, Michael John Bull. “They attributed her sickness to Ebola.”

Angie died in a West Point church. Prayer had become Ms Johnson’s last option. Princess was trapped on the other side of the barbed wire barricades and found out about her daughter’s death more than a week later. “Sometimes I still feel she is in my arms,” says Princess. “I thought my baby would be my consolation for all my suffering. She used to bring me joy and hope.”

 

Ebola has halted normal life in Liberia and plunged people into poverty.  In July, the government ordered all schools to close indefinitely, to prevent the fever spreading. As a result, Princess’s hope to learn reading and writing must wait. She has returned to prostitution to earn a living, and is too ashamed to live with her grandmother as Street Child has encouraged her to do. She rarely eats even one meal a day.

Ebola is no deterrent for the sex trade, despite being transmitted through physical contact. “The men complain about having money problems because of Ebola, so they’re not paying as much,” says Princess. “There’s nothing I can do to check a man who comes my way. I wash my hands with chlorine water and use a condom, but I’m not sure that is enough.”

Mr Bull’s team provided food to West Point residents during the quarantine, which he says has had lasting negative consequences. “Since the quarantine was lifted, people are deliberately doing things to spite the government,” he says. “They go around shouting that there is no Ebola in West Point. When people fall ill, they are hiding it because they do not want to be quarantined a second time.”

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The Ebola epidemic has claimed more than 2,600 lives across West Africa, with more than half of those deaths in Liberia (EPA)

The charity More Than Me is also working in the slum. It used to run a school for vulnerable West Point girls, but now founder Katie Meyler has redirected its focus. “If we don’t, there won’t be a school in the future because there won’t be any girls left to serve,” she says.

One action has been to fund an ambulance. Ms Meyler’s team of nine local men work 24 hours a day wearing Ebola-proof white plastic bodysuits, masks and gloves to remove sick residents from the community. Locals have complained ambulances were taking days to collect suspected cases.

They deliver patients to the Redemption Hospital north of the slum, where a queue of vehicles bearing sick people gathers daily. The government–run facility is at full capacity, as are all the Ebola treatment centres in the country. Last week, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which runs many units, blamed the lack of international response for services being overwhelmed. “In Monrovia, sick people are banging on the doors of MSF Ebola care centres, because they do not want to infect their families and they are desperate for a safe place in which to be isolated,” said MSF international president Dr Joanne Liu. “Highly infectious people are forced to return home, only to infect others and continue the spread of this deadly virus.”

Ms Meyler describes the hospital as “hell on earth”. She said: “On Monday, we arrived at Redemption and there were 10 dead bodies being removed. A woman in a taxi waiting to go in died in front of me.

“Our ambulance had six people in it – a whole family from West Point. The baby was throwing up blood and about to die.” Of those who contract Ebola in this epidemic, around half will die.

She spotted a three-year-old girl sitting alone in an ambulance. Her bright pink party dress clashed with her shocked expression. “She had just watched her mother die,” said Mayler. “She didn’t have any visible symptoms, so I asked the ambulance driver why they had brought her. They said her whole family had died and no one in the community would take her because they’re scared.”

Orphaned children are becoming a growing issue in Liberia. Last week, Unicef suggested that about 20 per cent of Liberian children whose parents have been killed by Ebola are under the age of two. Ms Meyler has responded by converting part of her school into a quarantine for orphaned girls. A teacher and a social worker will care for the girl, Pearlina, for 21 days – the virus’s maximum incubation period. They wear protective bodysuits, in case she develops symptoms. “She’s in there with toys and Disney movies,” says Ms Mayler. “She’s laughing and smiling now.”

Outside Monrovia, road blocks implemented to restrain movement have cut off people from markets and workplaces. The result has been widespread food shortages in a country where much of the population lives hand to mouth, earning money each morning in order to eat that night.

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