Health & Medicine

Ex-reporter fights Ebola in Liberia

Gabriel Williams, counselor for press and public affairs in the Liberian Embassy in Washington, sits on the left in this picture. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is on the right.
Gabriel Williams, counselor for press and public affairs in the Liberian Embassy in Washington, sits on the left in this picture. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is on the right.

When the first Ebola case on U.S. soil proved to be a Liberian who had landed in Texas, Gabriel Williams said he was crestfallen. He knew both the fight against the deadly virus and his job – to demystify and destigmatize Liberia – just got tougher.

Williams, a veteran journalist, fled his native Liberia for Sacramento in 1993 after he was nearly murdered during his coverage of the bloody civil war that killed 250,000. He raised a family here, wrote for The Sacramento Observer and the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce, and published a book, “Liberia: The Heart of Darkness.”

Williams, 50, returned to Liberia in 2006 to serve as deputy minister for public affairs to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for helping stabilize the war-torn nation. In 2010, she appointed Williams as minister for press and public affairs for the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Williams credits the United States and its people for helping Liberia – a country of 4.2 million founded in 1847 by freed slaves from America – become a beacon of hope and democracy in Africa. As of Oct. 3, a total of 3,834 Liberians had been infected with Ebola, and 2,069 had died, according to the World Health Organization.

Williams’ 22-year-old son lives in Monrovia, the capital. In a phone call from Washington, D.C., Williams discussed how Liberia is coping with the crisis.

How and when did Ebola get to Liberia?

Ebola was first discovered in the Congo in 1976, and broke out in neighboring Guinea in March 2014 in a village close to the border of Liberia and Sierra Leone. A lady from Liberia crossed over to attend the funeral of a relative who died from Ebola and then returned home and spread the disease to her family. When she died, many people came to her funeral from throughout Liberia, and they got infected, including a person who went to Monrovia.

While most Liberians are Christians, ancient funeral ceremonies led to the spread of the disease. When someone dies, you clean up the body and braid or shave the hair. The body will be dressed up nicely and put on display. People eat, drink and are merry to celebrate the person’s life and give them a good sendoff to the spirit world. The celebrations, practiced all across the continent, can last for days or weeks, and there are instances where people will kiss and touch the body. The Liberian woman who came back from the funeral died in a matter of days. Then Doctors Without Borders began to notice some of the symptoms. A disproportionate number of women became infected because they are the caregivers.

Why did it spread so quickly?

The people didn’t believe Ebola was real, and there’s no shortage of conspiracy theories. ... Tragically, some healthy people were put into quarantine centers and died. People got angry and didn’t want to deal with quarantine orders, because they believed if you’re sick and have to go to the hospital, you’re going to die and these health workers will kill you. These perceptions led to the murder of seven health workers in Guinea and the attack on the quarantine center in Monrovia where blood-stained sheets and mattresses were looted.

How did the Liberian government respond?

When we announced we were dealing with a developing health crisis, people thought we were trying to generate unnecessary alarm to gain support from the international community. In March, the minister of health and social welfare told the public to wash hands and abstain from sex for several weeks because the incubation period is 21 days, and the disease is often transmitted through the exchange of body fluids. Some publications turned this into a joke and the Legislature only approved $250,000 of the $1.5 million requested to fight the spread of the disease.

United Nations radio and dozens of community radio stations are broadcasting information about the fight against the virus. We do not have enough treatment centers right now but all of the places stricken with the disease are ultimately going to have treatment centers and medical supplies. If individual Americans or private organizations want to ship medical supplies to individual hospitals and regions in Liberia, no one is going to stop you.

What’s the impact on Liberia?

Liberia was a potential tourist haven with beautiful scenery, white sandy beaches, some of the world’s best surfing, waterfalls, lakes and 43 percent of the rain forests left in West Africa, home to unique, endangered species, including western chimpanzees, forest elephants, leopards and the pygmy hippopotamus. It’s attracted $17 billion in direct foreign investment in oil, mining, timber, rubber, agriculture and coastal resorts. Electricity and plumbing has expanded; 1.5 million Liberians are in school.

But despite these gains, Ebola has thrown Liberia into an economic, social and potential political and security crisis. Movement of people has been restricted, because if you can’t control that, you can’t control the disease. The entire country’s almost at a standstill, corporations have scaled down, schools and businesses are closed. To curb human interactions, ordinary people have been told to stay home and are losing their jobs. Liberia’s chief medical officer has quarantined herself because one of her top assistants has died from the disease. UNICEF has just issued a statement indicating over 3,700 West African children have been orphaned by the disease.

Is there any hope?

Liberians are a resilient people able to overcome tremendous odds, no matter what the situation, as demonstrated by their ability to survive a brutal civil war. But the psychological impact is unimaginable. Early every morning as I followed the new developments, I would break down and sob. Our people have suffered so much over the last 21 years to restore hope and normalcy, and all of a sudden, our very survival is at stake.

I have encouraged people – including my son in Monrovia – to stay put, make sure they have plenty of food and basic necessities, and remain calm. Officially there is no cure, but they are testing different medications to make sure we arrive at a vaccine or treatment. People have been using their own methods. CNN reported that one 22-year-old nursing student was able to single-handedly save three of her four immediate family – who had been turned away from a hospital in Monrovia that was full – by feeding and cleaning them and protecting herself with trash bags, gloves, rubber boots, a face mask and a raincoat. We would like to thank the U.S. and the international community for their help. With your support we believe this disease can be brought under control.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Sammy Caiola and Pete Basofin contributed to this report.