Fri | Nov 27, 2020

Facing West Africa’s antisocial disease - Doctors share the pain of not even being able to hug during the outbreak

Published:Sunday | July 28, 2019 | 12:10 AM

In this Saturday, July 13, 2019 photo, health workers wearing protective gear check on a patient isolated in a plastic cube at an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, Congo.
In this Saturday, July 13, 2019 photo, health workers wearing protective gear check on a patient isolated in a plastic cube at an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, Congo.

‘The Jamaicans’, as they are called in Liberia, did not run like many others who came, saw and fled during the deadly Ebola outbreak in 2013-2016.

But doctors Coril Warmington and Marian Stewart were not always brave either, as they witnessed the disease killing thousands.

They, too, had packed their bags to flee like other Westerners who were in several parts of Africa, especially West Africa.

Now the “missionaries with a worldwide vision” from Faith and Deeds Ministries recount how they overcame the crippling fear, standing their ground against the much-dreaded disease, telling The Sunday Gleaner that their delayed departure was a divine order.

“The fear of death was crippling. Once you got Ebola, you were going to die within 21 days. And the fear was not only in Liberia, it was on the entire world,” said Dr Warmington, wife of Government Member of Parliament Everald Warmington and mother of grown children.

“Fear causes people to behave in a way that is sometimes contrary to good sense. So once you understand that, then you try to avoid it getting into your system.”

Recounting that period, Stewart shared that, “Ebola manifested itself like malaria and typhoid, which are quite common in those areas. And so it was difficult to know if the person had Ebola, or malaria or typhoid, which are treatable and from which people recovered.”

She explained, “Liberians, like every African, like to hug. And this was essentially a disease that was spread through love. You touch someone you cared about, and in an environment where people are sweaty, some of their body fluids get on you, and you were now exposed to something you could die from.”

Both Jamaican women, from a friendly culture similar to Liberia, said it was painful to watch how antisocial they were forced to become, no longer able to enjoy laughter and fun.

“One of the things that was tremendously gutting about the disease, is that you would see your child, your parents and grandparents sick, and if you hugged them, you signed your death warrant,” she said.

Dr Warmington added, “Many persons were dying shortly after their relatives died, because they did not believe it was contagious. Over there, bodies are washed and dressed and revered for interment. They respect their dead. Many would take the bodies and go across state lines to handle it because they did not want their dead in a mass grave, and they got the disease and died.”

As part of containing Ebola, the World Health Organization had declared that cremation of those who died from the disease was one of the best options, as it was more contagious in death.

But in that culture, burning the dead was a no-no.

DOUBLY TRAUMATIC

Dr Stewart said that it was doubly traumatic for Liberians, as they could not handle their loved one in life or death.

“So greeting people had to be spirit led. The Holy Spirit kept us there. We could only wave. Even in churches, individuals had to stand at least three feet away from each other. It was a very antisocial disease,” said Stewart.

The women shared how God brought them through.

“When I saw the death coming so close, we were deathly afraid. But the Lord told us to stay. He gave us the word that we would live to see the end of it. I received that word, and the fear went,” insisted Warmington.

Starvation would also stare many in the face. With the markets closed due to the banning of large gathering of persons, Warmington and Stewart were forced to plant their own food. Their produce would come to feed many Liberians who were dying from starvation. It was then that Liberians realised that ‘the Jamaicans’ were still there.

Community chiefs were very important in eliminating the disease, said Warmington, noting that in addition to their medical and counselling roles, they were also advisers to the chiefs.

“We have to give credit to Liberians who worked on the ground, and at all levels. They really rallied and helped their fellow men,” stated Dr Stewart.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com