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Pulled from Ground Zero: Fleeing Ebola

People walk past a billboard encouraging people suffering from symptoms linked to Ebola to present themselves at a health facility for treatment in Freetown, Sierra Leone. AP

Editor’s note: It’s great to be a journalist who finds himself/herself at the center of a global news event. But when the event poses a threat to your life, as some judged the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone did for University of Washington journalism student Cooper Inveen, the story comes second. Cooper, who wrote an Ebola dispatch from Freetown for Humanosphere, was recently evacuated (against his wishes) and sent home. Here’s a post partially ‘curated’ from our chats, Cooper’s thoughts and experiences at the center of this particular maelstrom.

By Cooper Inveen 

My journalism internship ended abruptly, due to big news. I was sent to this part of West Africa to gain experience doing international reporting for a few months in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for one of the main newspapers here, Awoko.

When I departed for Sierra Leone in late June, friends expressed concern for my safety due to the spread of Ebola in the eastern region of the country.

The Ebola outbreak started in neighboring Guinea last December (but was not recognized for what it was until March 2014). The expectation was that this outbreak – like most previous Ebola outbreaks – would remain small in the number of human cases, and contained to isolated or mostly remote communities. The possibility that Ebola would continue to spread, into the bigger cities, seemed unlikely.

For all sorts of reasons, this outbreak has instead exploded – spreading into cities across West Africa and continuing to grow in scope. This is now the world’s largest and most deadly Ebola outbreak ever recorded, with more than 1,000 dead and countless others sickened.

But to be thrown right in the middle of one of the world’s biggest news stories would be any young journalist’s fantasy. I was confident I could easily avoid the not-so-easily-transmitted disease if proper precautions were taken. I began reporting for Awoko, and Humanosphere. It was crazy exhilarating, surreal even.

Cooper washes up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Cooper washes up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Then, on Friday, I got the word from my supervisors at the UW that they would like me to evacuate. I was to follow most of the other Westerners who were fleeing as well, including church groups, humanitarian groups, Peace Corps volunteers and others. This upset me, and not only because I was being called away from a huge story; I wondered how this looked to locals, to Africans – all of us Americans getting the hell out when the going got rough.

I wanted to stay. This was one of the biggest stories on the planet. But it wasn’t up to me. So here’s my exit observations, excerpted from my blog and email conversations:

July 30 –  On Tuesday, we learned that the deadly Ebola virus had claimed the life of this country’s leading viral haemorrhagic fever specialist, Dr. Sheik Imar Kahn. In a move of complete self-sacrifice, the doctor took charge of the Ebola treatment centre at the government hospital in Kenema, moving himself into a frontline position that would ultimately be his demise. The nation and the world were rocked by the loss of such a noble man, left only with questions of what could have been.

On Wednesday evening, the Peace Corps announced via their website that they would be discontinuing their operations in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. In a precautionary measure to protect their staff from Ebola, the American developmental assistance group declared it would temporarily withdraw its 130 volunteers from the provincial regions of Sierra Leone, with little to no warning given to its workers on the ground. Historically Peace Corps has been known to refrain from extraction until the very last possible second, and so news of their departure sent an ominous chill through the community.

August 4 – The evacuation of the Peace Corps from West Africa was a game changer. Together with reports of American health workers contracting the deadly Ebola virus in Liberia, Western countries are frantically encouraging their compatriots in the region to catch the next available flights home. The United States has even posted a national travel warning to strongly discourage its citizens from making their way out to the countries hardest hit, including Sierra Leone.

Many of these volunteers were not even stationed in areas of particularly high risk, but the infection of two Peace Corps workers in Liberia was deemed by the US government to be enough of reason to remove all the organization’s employees from the surrounding region, even places that haven’t experienced a single confirmed Ebola case. And now, the fear has even spread to the United States itself after two American health workers who contracted the virus have been shipped to Atlanta for treatment.

The director of the apocalyptic thriller movie “Contagion” was quoted recently as saying, “Ebola is not the pandemic; fear is.” And I wholeheartedly back that statement. I will not downplay the situation. Here in Sierra Leone more and more people are being infected each day, and there aren’t signs of this trend slowing down any time soon. But we need to remember that this isn’t an airborne virus from which there is no escape.

Ebola’s limited capabilities for transmission mean that as long as we remain cautious and aware, we can take our health largely into our own hands. We have the capability to take steps to reduce our risk of infection, but the second we succumb to our fears and deny that those steps will have any effect, that is when we will truly be lost. It is the most fearful who are dying in the highest numbers: those fleeing treatment, those worrying that a positive diagnosis is an automatic death sentence. In a way, the fear of Ebola is almost more deadly than the virus itself.

August 6 – Mr. Michelle (Awoko’s driver) picked me up from the house and switched on the car radio. There are only about half a dozen stations to choose from, but they were all playing the same thing that morning. President Koroma’s voice crackled through the speakers as he recognized the quickening haste with which Ebola was spreading and officially declared Sierra Leone in a Public State of Emergency. According to his address, this this means that the outbreak’s epicentres will now be quarantined, police will be dispatched to hospitals to stop escapees, road blocks will be set up by the military, screening tests will be issued for all departing passengers at Lungi International Airport, and large public gatherings are to be either prohibited or strongly discouraged.

With the State of Emergency in effect the clubs and most of the bars were all either shut down or next to empty, so we all just went home to sleep off the day and hope that our second two-day weekend in a row would provide the much needed rest that we all craved. The week had been mentally exhausting – well, at least for me, and I’m the one with a guaranteed ticket out of this place.

August 8 – The university contacted me early this morning. They’re pulling me out…. I’m upset about it. Today, I was absolutely swamped with a column I was working on in response to CNN’s absurd claims of ZMapp being a “miracle cure” for Ebola…. CNN’s labeling it also as a “secret serum” has caused people here to think that the US is sitting on a cure, purposely leaving Africa to rot …. (The mainstream media in the U.S.) seems to be mostly focusing on the big picture or how it effects Americans…. Mainstream (Western) news media tending to highlight ignorance here, focusing on denial and giving the wrong impression about how people in Freetown are handling this.

Denial has been almost completely replaced by fear, and the fear is spreading like wildfire. This has also led to a lot of other things like widespread confusion as to what they should actually be doing, especially given the unavailability of preventative products, or the mass price increases in the ones that are available. No government action is being taken to ensure availability or fixed prices. -People are also hating every aspect of the Western representation. One friend repeatedly tells me, “They report as if we’re all uneducated and have Ebola.”

Random observations I make before ‘evacuating’ the place –

  • Cars covered in Ebola warning posters with guys with megaphones sensitizing people.
  • A woman on the street preaching Ebola doom to all passers by with a megaphone.
  • Two Ebola hip-hop songs that have become increasingly popular.
  • Ebola-themed graffiti popping up everywhere.
  • Hand washing stations everywhere now, sometimes with a guard to make sure people are using them
  • People carrying personal chlorine bottles with them everywhere they go.
  • Local news/radio completely dominated by Ebola. Other coverage virtually non-existent.
  • People walking down the street in full hazmat suits with large chlorine spraying tanks on their backs.
  • Pharmacies with Ebola drugs have been burned down by skeptics.
  • People used to constantly joke about Ebola before; As of this week I haven’t heard a single one.
  • Disappearing Ebola funds: Nurses aren’t getting allowances, some Ebola patients aren’t getting food rations.
  • There are only 4 ambulances catering to the entire country outside of Freetown!
  • All church services this week were solely about Ebola.
  • People think the US made Ebola to make money off of “stupid Africans” because CNN reported that the US has a “secret serum.”
  • People are worried about the Peace Corps evacuation and what it means for their safety.
  • The government is not distributing any preventative equipment. All has to be bought personally or is being donated by NGO’s an private sector companies.
  • The National Football Team Leone Stars were denied entry to Seychelles due to Ebola fears.
  • Religious leaders say no shaking hands, people have listened. Some local governments have even implemented bylaws making the practice illegal.
  • The African Union sent Sierra Leonean troops home from the fight in Somalia due to Ebola fears.
  • Survivors face intense stigmatization and prejudice.
  • Burial teams are attacked at least once every few days.

Now, back in Seattle, I am still reeling from the exhausting whirlwind trip and processing it all. One of my strongest, and perhaps most disturbing, lessons learned from this brief and aborted internship is how very different the story can look from ‘ground zero’ as compared to the perspective offered by the mainstream media. Fear and ignorance is highly contagious, whether we are talking about a poor community in sub-Saharan Africa or the United States.

Cooper InveenCooper Inveen is a Seattle-based journalist, a student at the University of Washington and was, until this weekend, a reporter for the Awoko newspaper in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. Raised in Gig Harbor, WA, Cooper also writes of his exploits at his blog Rain Enthusiast.




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