What was intended as a public health discussion erupted into emotional mayhem this week as local Liberians struggled to grasp why their loved ones back home are continuing to die.
Desperate for reliable information about the Ebola virus that has killed hundreds in their native country as well as in bordering Guinea and Sierra Leone, members of Sacramento’s Liberian community gathered Wednesday evening at the Friends in Jesus International Church to hear from Julia Duncan-Cassell, the minister of gender and development for Liberia and a member of the recently formed National Task Force on Ebola.
The official was stateside for the U.S.-Africa summit when the Rev. Tim Wulah Jr. invited her to speak about the virus. Wulah has been building the mostly Liberian church community on Elder Creek Road since 2001, when refugees escaping a long and violent civil war began pouring in.
It’s from the ashes of that war that Liberia and its neighbors are attempting to battle what officials have declared the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The already-weak health infrastructure, a shortage of medical supplies and general confusion about the disease are making it a difficult battle to wage, said Duncan-Cassell.
“This Ebola disease is a new thing and it’s going to change a lot of our cultural norms, our tradition and the way we live,” she said. “If Ebola hits one family, that entire family in that house is wiped away. The lack of knowledge of the disease, and our normal practices are what’s spreading it.”
The virus, which has killed more than a thousand people since the outbreak began in March, can be transmitted through sweat, saliva, blood, semen and other bodily fluids. Once in the body, the virus incubates for two to 21 days before causing high fever, vomiting and diarrhea, followed by organ failure and eventually internal and external bleeding.
Florence Brown, a member of the church who left loved ones in Liberia when she moved here seven years ago, said her son Bobby was sick for only three days before he died of the virus. The 28-year-old technician was living about five hours away from Monrovia, the capital, but traveled there to get medicine. Once in, he was not permitted to leave, Brown said, and succumbed to the disease alongside many others quarantined in the city.
Through tears, Brown recounted the stories she has heard from her parents and her husband, who call regularly with updates about the rising food prices and the passing of friends.
“There’s nowhere you can run,” she said. “If you run, you find more dying. You are afraid to die, you are hungry. Mothers are leaving their children. We don’t know what’s going on.”
Though Brown stayed home from Wednesday’s meeting, the two dozen Liberians who were there asked question after question about the government’s efforts to quell the spread of the disease. Inquiries about basic sanitation and airport screenings led to a heated back-and-forth between audience and speaker about how the situation became so dire.
“The government has screwed up,” Wulah said, facing the group. “If the government had done what they were supposed to, we would not be here today.”
Wulah was referring to a lack of education about the kinds of common regional practices that spread the disease – namely bathing and burying the dead as well as hunting and eating fruit bats, which are believed to be the original carriers of the virus.
Duncan-Cassell reported that the minister of health has started getting the word out about those practices and has created hand-washing stations on every corner.
When CalPERS employee Kwasi Lawrence was in Monrovia last week, he said he kept his hands in his pockets.
The software specialist traveled to his home country in mid-July to mourn his sister, who died of a heart attack unrelated to Ebola. When he tried to go to the church for mourning services the day after the burial, he could not get to town because of the bodies on the street. He was supposed to be in the country until the end of August but instead returned last Sunday because he was afraid to stay, he said.
Because British Airways has stopped flying to Monrovia and Sierra Leone, Lawrence had to change to a flight on Brussels Airlines. The airport was busy with people trying to get out, all of whom had to be screened for high temperatures before they were permitted to board, he said.
Now back in Sacramento, Lawrence said he is working from home for two weeks and avoiding contact with people as much as possible. He threw out the clothing he wore in Liberia.
“I’m not concerned I’m sick, but I don’t want to scare other people,” he said. “People have a lack of knowledge. They don’t know what precautions I’ve taken and I have to protect myself.”
There are about 1,800 west Africans in the Sacramento region, including 450 born in Liberia, 600 born in Nigeria and 250 born in Sierra Leone, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wulah called all of these groups together on July 31 to declare a prayer and fast day in honor of Ebola victims. On Sunday, the Sierra Leonean community will host a healing service at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. The gears are turning on awareness events and fundraising campaigns from both communities.
Ernest Uwazie, the director of the Center for African Peace and Conflict Resolution at California State University, Sacramento, was in Nigeria, his native country, earlier this month. He said conditions are under control there, where there have been only a handful of reported Ebola deaths. Still, he said he is concerned for fellow west Africans.
“It’s a moment of great concern not only for those countries but globally,” he said. “I would hope the international community will react as needed, and I would expect the African diaspora to be able to rally to help the people in the countries in any way possible, via financial support and professional help. I don’t think the government in those countries alone will be able to deal with it.”