Today I want to describe the impression of the Ebola emergency I had from the German media before coming to Sierra Leone and compare this impression with the real situation. I’m not claiming that I’m overseeing the whole media landscape in Germany, nor that I always interpreted the contents correctly. However, I’m consuming German media and that allows me to describe my authentic impression.
This impression was the following: Ebola is spreading in Sierra Leone more and more, because it is a very dangerous infectious disease and highly contagious. Despite enormous funding from abroad, the international community is unable to stop the epidemic. On top of that, the local population is a bit stupid and is not observing the behavioural rules necessary to curb the disease.
That reflects more or less what was being communicated from my point of view. The result was, that many of my friends and family considered my wish to get involved in the Ebola response as being risky and even reckless. My aunt wanted to tie me up in the cellar in order to prevent me from leaving, and a friend was insisting that I should not touch any objects in Sierra Leone, because the virus could contaminate anything. Some friends did not know before my departure in November, that Ebola can be transmitted only through body fluids and not through the air like, for example, the flue. After all this journalist work being published in newspapers, radio and TV I’m really wondering what went wrong. While reporting about a more or less unknown sickness, wouldn’t it be most important to try to explain the mode of infection first? Should media not try to communicate this first? Instead, fear was being created, discussions revolved around the question whether or not German citizens are in danger. From my perspective, the German media failed. And that is one of the reasons for this blog.
And just to let you know: To get infected with Ebola requires ignorance of basic hygiene practices and precautions. The government of Sierra Leone was not very strong before Ebola and the emergency state did not exactly improve their ability to perform. Public spending is marginal, especially in disaster prevention and awareness. Foreign funds are spend too much on treatment and research. Many people are illiterate, don’t have radios and are deeply rooted in their traditions. The dangerousness or difficult treatment are only one factor beyond other, more important ones.
This is a translation of my original article in German.
2 Weeks ago Julia visited me during her vacation in Germany. 10 days before I met her she was still in Sierra Leone in Freetown. This is the place where the Ebola outbreak is raging most. As I met her it was not clear whether she was infected by the virus or not. Yes there are health checks when entering Germany at the Airport but we all know the incubation time of Ebola is between 2 and 21 days. I was wondering how I would welcome Julia. I decided that I would rely on the two facts that she measures her temperature regularly and that Ebola is only infecting once you can see the symptoms.
Only a few hours before she arrived at my place I had a friend with me who worked for MSF and now for save the children. He informed me again that Ebola is about the most aggressive virus and that many people in the health sector refuse to go to Ebola affected regions because it is just too dangerous. He pointed out that there is an obvious reason that the belongings of infected people are completely burned down. He emphasized that this is not due to the fact that Ebola is only transferred via body fluids. I became insecure again.
We had a long discussion about all the stuff that I have learned from Julias work, this blog, Wikipedia and the reports by print and online media. I couldn’t get the information that I had gathered so far straight in order to make a qualified decision. I think my friend had a very valid point about burning down all the belongings. So could it indeed be possible that Julia was infected but didn’t show symptoms yet and would it be possible that Julia left the virus in my flat without me and her even touching each other?
Suddenly Julia was at my doorstep. I let her come in. I was still not sure if I wanted to touch Julia. By our culture it would have been reasonable to give her a short hug. Only after raising my concerns and having Julia repeating them I felt ashamed and decided to overcome my fear and give her a hug. I was mad at myself. Julia was very patient and did not pressure me. In fact she was very respectful. In fact it was her who taught me through this blog that sticking to customs and cultural habits is one of the worst things during the Ebola outbreak. She frequently described how prevention would be much easier if people would have a better education. So I wonder how it can be possible that I as an educated person who still has doubt about security can act in such an insecure way?
I made pasta and salad for Julia. We decided to also visit a bar. On our way I bought some disinfection spray. I was a little overwhelmed by the big offer of our local department store. Some sprays where only for some flue viruses and many where not supposed to have hand contact. I decided for one of the stronger sprays.
Our time in the bar was interesting. I learnt that Julia didn’t measure her temperature since she was back in Germany. She stated that she new her body and would in particular know if she became sick. Yes I had read these words in this particular blog before but the circumstances have been different. She was clearly in Sierra leone where she had several public health checks per day anyway. Here in Germany I thought her behavior was kind of risky. But she stuck to her point that she was on vacation and in particular happy that she could get a break of constantly measuring temperature. She said that she did not even carry a thermometer with her.
As I returned at my flat I started to disinfect the entire place. I placed the medium on everything that I was aware of had contact with Julia. Even when I only assumed Julia had contact with it it became disinfected. In particular there are the plates, fork, knife and cup that have been used by Julia during dinner. I cleaned the dishes under my shower since I did not want to have the potential virus in my kitchen. I disinfected the dishes another time an placed them on my balcony which so far I did not enter again. Today two weeks later the dishes are still on my balcony. By know I can be sure that Julia was not affected since she is more than 20 days out of Sierra Leone. But I will give myself a buffer of another week. After that time i will start to use the dishes and the balcony again.
Overall it was a strange experience to welcome a close person whose contact could potentially result in an deathly endeavor. I admire Julia a lot for her courage to fight Ebola and literally to go over the minefield. Obviously I would not be able to do so since I was even overwhelmed by her visit in Germany.
This article is a translation of my original german version