An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa has killed more than 900 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. And now the disease has become a military problem.
Soldiers and police are scrambling to impose order and enforce quarantines as infected people flagrantly ignore instructions to stay put and public fear and violence mount.
Villagers have attacked clinics and health workers, believing they’re responsible for the outbreak and even might deliberately be spreading it. Meanwhile, other communities believe the disease isn’t real—that it’s a fiction the government created in order to control people.
Some of these countries, particularly Liberia and Sierra Leone, recently suffered bloody civil wars and ruthless dictators. Distrust of both the government and outsiders runs deep, especially in the poorest rural communities.
On Aug. 4, Sierra Leone’s government ordered its citizens to remain in their homes. Troops have set up roadblocks to cordon off infected communities.
A military spokesmen said military convoys will haul medical supplies and food. Only health workers will have permission to move in and out of the military cordons. The government has banned large public gatherings.
In Liberia, the virus has spread to the capitol Monrovia. People have dropped dead in the streets. Monrovia residents, heeding warnings not to touch the dead and dying, have kept their distance.
But anger is deepening as the Liberian government’s slow response leaves bodies to rot. Liberians have reported bodies in or near streams—a dangerous threat to public health.
Monrovia residents now are setting up roadblocks, clashing with police and vowing continued disruptions until the government picks up the bodies.
There have been some strange developments. Bizarre reports are circulating in Liberian news and social media of mysterious armed men poisoning wells to “kill in the name of Ebola.”
These accounts seem to be tied to a strong religious response to the crisis. Some local religious leaders insist the virus is divine punishment for Liberia’s sins.
Liberian army troops have joined police in patrolling the streets. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has declared a state of emergency and set up a special task force to deal with the crisis. Measures include limitations on public gatherings, school closings and mandatory leave for non-essential government employees.
The international peacekeeping mission UNMIL has been backing up Liberian police and troops. It seems peacekeepers even have responded to violent incidents in Foya and Voinjama districts in Lofa county, according to comments by mission political chief Karen Landgren.
Landgren has advised peacekeepers to be extra cautious about hygiene in the wake of the outbreak. The mission is trying to educate Liberians about Ebola with fliers and social media posts.
There have been two confirmed Ebola deaths in Nigeria. A Nigerian health workers is pictured at the top of this story, in a photo by the AP’s Sunday Alamba.
Patrick Sawyer, a 40-year old Minnesotan of Liberian descent, brought the disease on a flight from Monrovia and to Nigeria. He died in a hospital in Lagos on July 25. One of the nurses who treated Sawyer also died. Several other health workers who came in contact with Sawyer have contracted the virus.
Nigerian health officials have admitted that their response was slow. Health officials worry that Nigerian authorities didn’t immediately isolate Sawyer. There have been allegations that Liberian officials knew Sawyer may have contracted Ebola—and let him fly, anyway.
Nearby Ghana, which boasts one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies and an ambitious universal healthcare system, has had three false alarms. The virus’ presence in Liberia to the west and Nigeria to the east has frightened Ghanaians. The fact that Sawyer briefly stopped in Ghana has exacerbated the fear.
An anonymous Ghanaian official told GhanaWeb that Ghanaian security services intervened after hearing about an America plan to transport some U.S. citizens from Liberia to Ghana. The Ghanaians reportedly told the Americans they could stop to refuel, but couldn’t leave the plane.
Ghana has banned flights from affected West African countries and has begun health screenings in border towns. Authorities also have restricted movement within the Buduburam refugee camp, which has housed thousands of Liberians since 1990.
Ghana’s health ministry announced that it would set up Ebola response centers in Accra, Kumasi and Tamale.
But Ghanaian health minister Dr. Kwaku Agyemang Mensah seems to think border security measures are sufficient to keep the disease out of the country. “When it comes to Ebola, we may hear of it but will never see it,” he told Ghana’s Joy News.
Idan Osam, an online journalist for Ghana’s Citi FM, expressed concern that Ghana still isn’t ready to deal with the virus. “The Ghana Immigration Service has disclosed that not only does its personnel lack knowledge about the virus, they also do not have the requisite protective gear to protect themselves for this new role,” she warned.
“Simply put, they are clueless about what to do if they encounter an infected person.”
As the death toll increases, countries across West Africa are tightening borders and putting military and police on high alert. It’s unclear whether these measures can stop Ebola.
“Border controls alone give a false sense of security,” David Heymann, a disease control expert, told The Guardian. “You cannot keep Ebola out using only that because people can still get to places where there aren’t controls.”
Maintaining security and preventing attacks on health workers is critical. But education is the real solution. Everyday people need to know how to avoid spreading the disease.
Picking up all those dead bodies would probably help, too.