Ebola and Sanitation


By: Lekpele M. Nyamalon

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 8, 2015


Lekpele M. Nyamalon

Monrovia: Liberians are poised at the bus park, awaiting the announcement of an Ebola free nation on May 9.  This is great news for the small West African Nation that found herself increasingly isolated by July through December of 2014.  Liberia was one of the epicenters in the West African sub region that was badly hit by the deadly epidemic. According to the statistics of previously affected countries by the Centers for Disease Control, Liberia recorded the highest death toll of 4716 out of 10564   total cases of suspected, probable and laboratory confirmed cases. Faced with economic, socio- cultural and health- induced sanctions, nearly all International flights were suspended, with a drastic decline in trade, lowering investment, widespread economic speculation, thus bringing an entire nation to a monumental stop.

The pace of a nation gradually recovering from a devastating 14-year civil war was stopped at an abrupt and uncertain end. Gloom hovered over Monrovia. The panic that characterized the Civil war became more apparent-fleeing internationals, lowering economic activities, mass movement of people, fear, pandemonium, humiliating interaction with outsiders, unfavorable international news coverage, etc. Liberia was nearing point zero. 

A mid-term election for the Senate was postponed from October to November, sending a message that the health of a nation was paramount than meeting a constitutional deadline. The hysteria began when Liberian government employee Patrick Sawyer, died in Nigeria of Ebola. The news went viral; sending chills across Africa that Liberians were carriers of the Ebola virus, like fruit bats- the natural habitat of the virus. Barely months after, the World was shocked when Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed of Ebola on the shores of the United States of America. Duncan, showed no signs of the virus, passed through International health protocols, and travelled to America. International media zoomed in on Liberia and the circus began.  Fear was alive. Long standing deeply entrenched stereotypes of Africans resurfaced. 

A world wide campaign by Africans went viral: ‘I am an African and not a Virus’, ‘I’m a Liberian, not a virus’. Celebrated Beninoise Singer and Musician Angelique Kidjo narrated her ordeal in a moving article in the New York Times, ‘Don’t let Ebola dehumanize Africa’. She explained how naïve and evil preconceptions about Africa had resurfaced. Her encounter with a taxi driver in New York, who stigmatized her of the Ebola virus only because she was West African, summed it all.  The story of Kidjo is a tip of the iceberg of larger stories; wrapped in fear that many Africans, the world over, endured about the negative impact of the Ebola virus disease.   In Liberia, an effort to quarantine a huge slum community which is one of the ways of containing the virus went amok when residents clashed with law enforcement officers that resulted in the death of a teenager.

But, with all the good news of an Ebola free Liberia, there are strong concerns of an Ebola free sub region, and ultimately, a world free of Ebola with a possibility of a vaccine for the virus.  The Global Community must not see Ebola as a neglected African centric infectious disease, but an international emergency. As the examples of Duncan, Sawyer, the Spanish nurse, and other foreign nationals that contracted the virus showed, Ebola is an unknown serial killer. A concerted global effort to tackle Ebola and other neglected infectious diseases should be sustained. Africa has borne the brunt of neglect and stigma of diseases she did not create.

African governments should collaborate on disease surveillance and prevention mechanisms aimed at protecting their borders and citizens. The war on Ebola and other infectious diseases is like a war on terror and can’t be fought alone. 

In Liberia, the culture of shaking hands was permanently curtailed bringing a socio-cultural gap among the people who are accustomed to greeting with handshakes and hugs. Every home was manned with a bucket of water mixed with bleach for hand washing.  In the absence of a vaccine and treatment for Ebola, one of the perceived antidotes was good sanitation and hygiene. Ebola has left a sobering message that sanitation is a hallmark of long-term sustainable efforts in combating diarrhea, colorea and other diseases that present  symptoms akin to Ebola .

Driving in Monrovia, I spotted a sign that read.’ Don’t Pepe Here’ A sanitation message that forbids people from urinating in public places. Ironically, few minutes later, three middle aged men descended on the sign and urinated profusely.  This is scary. Messages about Ebola awareness and prevention are tied to basic personal hygiene and public sanitation. Messages of constant hand washing with soap and clean water are widespread with a bucket of water posted at every entrance nowadays in Liberia. 

The Ebola virus is believed to be fast spreading through wastes, urine, feces, vomits, etc.  Hence, proper control of the virus means adequate sanitation.

The former spirited city mayor of Monrovia, Mary Broh, was known by her fierce reputation for cleaning up the City. Every first Saturday in Monrovia is recognized as a day of general clean up, famously referred to as Mary Broh day. Liberians should not be fixated on counting the days of an Ebola free Liberia, but should be changing attitudes towards sanitation, personal hygiene, adequate preparedness in response to health and other emergencies. Health authorities should investigate reports of Ebola victims buried in shallow graves in parts of Monrovia, research dumpsites were Ebola waste materials were disposed of, all aimed at preventing a possible resurgence of the virus. As Liberia approaches the rainy season, all bolts must be tied in ensuring that sanitation remains a hallmark in the fight against the return of the serial killer.

About the Author
Lekpele M. Nyamalon is a writer and poet from Liberia, an OSIWA Poetry residency fellow and the 2015 winner of World Poetry Day contest organized by Young People Today. He can be reached at nyamalon23@gmail.com

James McGill
Thanks Mr. Nyamalon. You are truly a gifted author. You write with such clarity and the vividness of your description often makes one feel that they are right on the scene and witnessing the events.

The most piercing moment that came to me while reading this piece is where you mentioned about your experience when you saw some callous minded fellows who disregarded the "do-not-pepee here sign" and discharged urine in a place where discharging waste is considered unsanitary.

This is the kind of indiscipline that has become one of the norms of our society and it eats at its moral core. This may sound harsh, but sometimes our behavior gives credence to the pro-slavery stance which states that, "The Black man is incapable of self-government...that the only option is for him to be tied to a horse and driven by a cart."

In spite of all the awareness that has been spread both locally and internationally concerning this deadly disease, why should people plunge themselves to this depth, and thus pollute the environment to the detriment of others? Why do we keep repeating the same acts and expect things to become better?

The thought is mind-boggling.
James McGill at 03:49PM, 2015/05/10.
James Mcgill
Correction: This is to correct my quotation of the pro-slavery stance. I meant to say, "The Black man is incapable of self-government...that the only option is for him to be tied to a cart and driven by a horse."
James Mcgill at 06:37AM, 2015/05/11.
Lekpele Nyamalon
Mr. MCGill, thanks for the feedback!
Lekpele Nyamalon at 10:50AM, 2015/05/13.
Wilfred Winn
Good piece. I was in Liberia as a US Soldier, fighting the disease. As a Liberian native, it was humiliating how my people were being looked down upon by heartless folks;I had to deal with that for six months.

As much as we dont want to see folks urinating everywhere, it is practically impossible to see such an outcome if people do not have public latrines to use. What alternatives do they have? This is not the case here in the States where you can walk to any gas stations or fast food place to urinate. So, what alternatives do they half- holding it until they get home - and many dont have indoor plumbing - is a cruel and unrealistic alternative.
Wilfred Winn at 10:28PM, 2015/05/24.
Wilfred Winn
Correction: "have", not half.
Wilfred Winn at 10:32PM, 2015/05/24.
Lekpele Nyamalon
Wilfred, thanks for the feedback! Your point is salient. There should be alternatives such as public latrines.It's a sad reality that comes with shared responsibilities. Governments should provide the basic necessities for its citizens on one hand, and citizens should consciously elect officials they believe can deliver.
Lekpele Nyamalon at 10:29AM, 2015/06/03.
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