How Ebola Hit the Wall

Looking at Art, Touch, Death

“Ebola is Real,” reads a mural in Tubman Boulevard, a busy street that cuts Monrovia, the coastal capital of Liberia, in two. Today it sounds self-evident, but it wasn’t before March 2014, when the large majority of the Liberian population—including Stephen Doe, the mural’s painter—had barely heard of the disease.

Since the first recorded epidemic in 1976, Ebola has appeared almost every year in remote villages across central Africa. Over the past 15 years, Uganda has had five outbreaks. Thanks to increased experience in quickly isolating the patients and spreading information about risks and best practices, the last recorded outbreak in 2012 only infected seven people and killed four.

West Africa is different. Until December 2013, the disease had never appeared in this region. So after infecting a two-year-old in the village of Meliandou, Guinea, it spread unrecognized and unchecked for three months. When, in March 2014, the Guinean government finally identified the symptoms as Ebola and set up an emergency hotline, people called in with conspiracy theories, claiming that the President had introduced the virus to delay elections or to exterminate the local Kissi tribe. One man claimed it was a plague set upon the Guinean people because a certain white snake had been killed.

Health workers sent by international NGOs were received with suspicion by the local population. Who were these people in white and yellow spacesuits, walking in groups, taking people away from their families and burning their uniforms? Rumors spread that the humanitarian workers had actually brought the epidemic to the country or that patients were being kidnapped to have their organs extracted and sold. In early April 2014, a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Macenta, Guinea, was attacked by villagers.

By that time, the virus was already popping up in neighboring countries. In Sierra Leone. while health workers were trying to convince people of the importance of washing hands frequently with soap, a local nurse sparked a protest after saying the disease was just “a gimmick aimed at carrying out cannibalistic rituals." In West Point, a slum in Monrovia, armed men freed patients from a clinic with the slogan: “There is no Ebola,” while a distraught man called the government’s hotline directly from the cemetery where he had gone to die.

It took a while before governments and NGOs realized that, in countries where governments were largely mistrusted, it was of key importance to involve credible sources in raising awareness against the disease. Idris Elba, a British actor of Sierra Leonean descent, created a campaign featuring popular African football players promoting best practices to fight the disease. A group of renowned African singers came together to record the song "Africa Stop Ebola," distributed by radio stations across Africa. Church leaders and imams, some of whom had been previously responsible for disseminating false claims about the disease, began to urge people to wash their hands, in sermons.

But the fight to raise awareness involved mostly ordinary people. In Sierra Leone, 300 volunteers went door to door informing the population about how to keep safe from infection and welcome survivors back into the community. In Conakry, Guinea, health workers went around markets distributing soap and spreading knowledge through megaphones. In Liberia, a team of graphic designers and storytellers printed and distributed a comic book featuring a football player and an Ebola survivor. The Daily Talk, a news chalkboard on Monrovia’s main street, was updated constantly with the latest news about the disease. More songs about Ebola were played from radio stations all across West Africa.

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In Liberia, new infections peaked in September 2014, reaching almost 480 weekly cases. Roughly at the same time, Stephen Doe painted the “Ebola is Real” mural in Tubman Boulevard. “I was contracted and commissioned by the Monrovia City Corporation,” Doe explains, “The owner of the wall allowed the painting.”

The mural took two months to complete. It includes visual representations of the most common symptoms (fever, headaches and vomiting,) basic tips on how to avoid transmission (no kissing, hugging and handshaking), as well as hygiene and cooking instructions (wash hands with water soap and chlorine, cook food well.)

“Hundreds of people see it every day. You cannot miss it if you are either leaving or going to Central Monrovia,” Doe says, “I’m convinced that it impacted people’s thinking and attitudes, besides the fact that it made the city more beautiful.” In January, thanks in part to the awareness-raising efforts of people like Doe, the number of new weekly Ebola infections in Western Africa dropped below 100 for the first time since June 2014.

Today, a few cases are still registered in Guinea and Sierra Leone, while Liberia saw only one confirmed case in March. The outbreak was the deadliest in the history of Ebola, infecting more than 25,500 people and killing almost 11,000.

 

All photos taken in Monrovia, Liberia, by Ahmed Jallanzo/epa for COLORS magazine.