Ebola: Tearing a hole in West Africa

October 6, 2014

By Mackenzie Weinger

On Wednesday 1 October, several experts told a crowd at the Frontline Club about the unprecedented and horrific impact that the Ebola epidemic is having in West Africa.

The panel — moderated by Ade Daramy, chair and spokesperson for the UK Sierra Leone Ebola Task Force — tackled the international community’s response to the outbreak and assessed the situation on the ground during the Frontline Club’s First Wednesday: The Fight Against Ebola.

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From left: Meinie Nicolai, Professor David Heymann, Ade Daramy, Colin Freeman, Dr Ike Anya and Dr Tim O’Dempsey in conversation at the Frontline Club. Photograph: Mackenzie Weinger

“This is an equal opportunity killer,” Daramy said.

In particular, the experts gathered at the Frontline Club’s discussion zeroed in on the damage the epidemic has inflicted on the health workforce.

Dr Tim O’Dempsey, who was seconded to WHO as clinical lead for the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone, this summer, told the packed house: “One of the things that probably isn’t on the radar at the moment in terms of the impact of Ebola is the impact on the health workforce and the loss of these very valued members of society.”

“Ebola,” he said, “has torn through the health infrastructure.”

And Meinie Nicolai — president of MSF Belgium and MSF’s operational directorate in Brussels, who recently returned from Liberia and Sierra Leone — called both the scale of MSF’s operations and the outbreak itself entirely “unprecedented”.

MSF is continually reinventing its Ebola response and has even done what they “never do”, which is to call for state actors to come in and get involved, she told the Frontline Club. “Throwing money is way too easy.”

The situation on the ground is absolutely devastating, she said. “People are dying at our front door”.

As for the media response, there have been few journalists on the ground covering this crisis, Colin Freeman, the chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, noted.

Freeman — who recently returned from West Africa and said his time on the ground offered “no shortage of dreadful horror stories” — put it down to the fears this particular virus has raised.

“Stories of this sort ring alarm bells in office health and safety managers because I’ve got to come home to the office and then go in and work in a building with 3,000 people. If I get a bullet wound, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Still, the nature of Ebola does demand that a journalist do his or her job in a very different fashion, he added. “What you have to do is just make sure nobody comes too near to you, which is the opposite of what you normally do when you’re trying to report and get in people’s confidence,” Freeman said.

And Ebola isn’t slowing down.

“The frightening thing for everybody involved in this is the accelerated epidemic that we’ve seen occurring in Liberia,” O’Dempsey said. “That is likely to be mirrored with about a six-week lag in Sierra Leone.”

But there are areas that offer some hope, he said. “The survivors, I think, are going to be a great asset when it comes to the epidemic response.”

As the evening came to a close, Daramy took a moment to remind the crowd that, “Even in the midst of Ebola, people are making jokes.”

“In Sierra Leone, they don’t shake hands, they touch elbows — and they refer to it as ‘elbowla’,” he said, to laughter from the crowd. “And also, they’re saying in the last few days is that if you don’t want to get Ebola, it’s as easy as ABC, which is ‘Avoid Bodily Contact’. So, you know, people can still smile. They can still smile.”

Watch and listen again here:



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