Monday, 1 September 2014

Ebola Rage

I am sick and tired of hearing and reading that Liberia has a weak healthcare system without trying to analyse the context. Neither the government nor the international community made healthcare a priority. It did not spend enough money to strengthen it. Instead the international aid has been gobbled up salaries and programmes/projects designed by technocrats that use the latest fashionable buzzwords.

I have been away from Liberia since March in Pakistan on a long holiday. My trip got extended a couple of times: at first I thought I would get the India visa (which I did not) and then had to get gall bladder surgery. Haresh came to Pakistan to spend Eid here and then we were meant to go back together.

Haresh and I parted ways in Dubai after a week-long holiday and family visit. He proceeded to Liberia and arrived in Monrovia on the 17th of August. I was back in Islamabad by the 21st of August. 

We had been in turmoil for the preceding couple of weeks, wondering whether we should go back together as a family or for me to stay away. Haresh was visiting Islamabad and right about that time, ebola struck Monrovia and a state of emergency was declared. Haresh and I extended our return dates a couple of times so we could think things through. Finally, his visa was about to expire and we decided to go to Dubai for a few days together. We changed our minds nearly every day about whether I should come along with Kavita or not.

In the end, I only packed for Dubai but little did I realise how painful it would be to bid farewell to Haresh in Dubai and then travel back to Islamabad alone with Kavita. Uncertainty loomed over my head. Haresh and I agreed that he would see how things were and then, confirm whether or not I should come back. We wanted to make up our own minds instead of being bombarded with everyone's else sense of panic. 

Things got tricky even before he got to Monrovia. Gambia Bird, the airline he was booked to travel back with from Accra to Monrovia, had cancelled its flights to Monrovia. He had to buy a $ 500 single way ticket to Monrovia with Delta which was apparently going to stop operating in a week (which it was apparently going to do anyway before the ebola crisis due to lack of business).  Liberia was being isolated. Pretty soon, it was clear that hardly anyone was flying to Liberia anymore. 

I felt awful and wished I had just gone ahead and traveled with Haresh. We would be safe if we practiced caution and common sense.

As Haresh settled in, I gathered from the news and him that expats and well to do folks really are not in any kind of danger. They are secure in their homes, they are able to practice hygiene and will follow all the precautions that they need to to be safe from ebola. But the vast majority of Monrovians live in densely-crowded communities in and around the city without access to plumbing or electricity. But what is really working against them is their overall mistrust of the government and lack of information about what is going on. 

Things deteriorated mostly because of the government's sheer incompetence.

Ever since I have been back to Islamabad, a sense of inertia has settled in me. I have hardly left the house. Even the idea of visiting one of the several beautiful parks or going to one of my favourite restaurants doesn't interest me.

I feel anger everyday thinking about the suffering of ordinary Liberians from one of the most deadly diseases known to woman and man. Liberia is a country where you can't even hope to get accurate, reliable and easy access to medical care. If you feel funny, a hospital or a clinic will tell you have malaria or typhoid or a combination of the two. They'll give you some medicines or put you on drip. The drip is a common medical practice in Liberia. They put you on drip for everything. Need a dentist? There are, to borrow an Americanism, like 3 of them in Monrovia. If have a really serious ailment or you need surgery, go to a neighbouring country like Ivory Coast or Ghana to get some medical attention. If you're pregnant and can afford to have the baby anywhere else, that would be very wise.

have experienced losing Liberian friends and staff because there is no decent hospital in Liberia. My long-serving housekeeper Joseph Dennis was taken ill and rushed to the JFK Hospital where he died. His death certificate says "Stroke or blood pressure." Monrovians cynically refer to John F Kennedy Hospital as Just for Killing. A young woman I knew through my late boyfriend had her leg amputated unnecessarily by the hospital in Firestone Plantation and continued to suffer unbearable pains and shriveled down to a bag of bones. Haresh and I tried to help Naomi through our company and sent her to India for diagnosis and treatment: it turned out she had jaundice, cancer and TB. She received a first round of treatment but needed to go back to India for further treatment - but only to extend some years of her life since the tumour in her body was too big now to remove surgically without killing her. We simply could not raise more funds to send her abroad again. She tried herself to get public figures to help her but of course nothing happened. She passed away, in the hospital, since she was sick all over again. It made me extremely angry and I felt helpless. 

Most of my rage is directed towards an international system which stepped in to conduct peacekeeping/peacemaking experiments in a country suffering from civil war. This system brokered a peace agreement where warlords get to enjoy the spoils of peace. It poured billions of dollars into the operations of a United Nations peacekeeping mission that has been present in Liberia since 2003. It poured millions of dollars into programmes in the first flush of a seemingly successful end of civil war like the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilittion and Reintegration (DDRR) Programme starting in 2004 and continued years afterwards in other projects that were meant to reintegrate former combatants and build on the peace. The international community helped to hold elections and, welcomed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf into power who for the international crowd represented the most perfect candidate to lead the country and also to do business with. Without even looking for any evidence of her achievements they got so over excited, they crowned her with a Nobel Peace Prize literally in the middle of the 2012 elections which re-elected her to power. 

Why am I so angry? I am angry because this system pretended to create a new, peaceful Liberia on the road to recovery and social justice but where it was business as usual. The average Liberian is still disenfranchised in every manner possible. There is money in the country for everything but what would make Liberians' lives better. It is a shame that after billions of dollars were poured into the country and handsome salaries are paid every month for Senators, Government Ministers, senior UN staff, and Country Directors of NGOs there is not a decent hospital in the country. It is a shame and injustice that there is no sense of guilt in the people who travel in the most expensive 4 x 4 jeeps and land cruisers on the streets of Monovia but there are hardly any diagnostic medical equipments in the entire country!  

I am sick and tired of hearing and reading that Liberia has a weak healthcare system without trying to analyse the context. But why is that so? Because neither the government nor the international community made healthcare a priority. It did not spend enough money to strengthen it. Instead the international aid has been gobbled up salaries and programmes/projects designed by technocrats and use the latest fashionable buzzwords.

Healthcare and education should have been among the top priorities for Liberia. That is social justice. Investments should have been met as soon as the so-called peace was ushered in. What kind of Liberia are we building if the people cannot hope to get a decent education or hope to save their lives from treatable illnesses in this day and age? Today we have university graduates who cannot spell and, a country where besides from ebola, people are dying from other illnesses because the healthcare system simply can't cope with the epidemic.

We who live and work in Liberia miss modern conveniences such as cinema houses, Starbucks coffeeshops and supermarkets selling 50 types of cereals. But we get over it.  What we do hope is that we never get sick. Not worse than a cold because there is simply no clinic or hospital we really want to get treated at. We also hope we never get seriously injured. None of us want to end up at Just for Killing. 

Of course if you're with the UN, you'll get flown to Accra on a UN flightt. A friend at an international NGO was flown back home to Europe because of a stomach bug. 

We live in separate worlds: a bubble of privilege versus daily struggle for survival. Us well to do folks and the average Liberian. We have to adjust ourselves to dire poverty and figure out how you relate to it and what it means on the cosmic scale of things. Some of us are working in the development industry. Some of us are in the private sector. 

Actually, you can't really relate to poverty because hardly any of us were ever that poor. We are aware of it, we live right next to it, and we probably feel very guilty for having been - comparatively -  born into the lap of luxury while the average person on the street literally has to hustle every day to make ends meet. We try to, in our own ways, make a difference.

Now, we have to also think about how ordinary Liberians are dying from ebola and how we are so lucky and fortunate that we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from it. 

I don't claim to be a hero or a saintly figure. Hardly. But I do feel an enormous sense of guilt that I can keep myself safe, healthy and pretty entertained while my staff, neighbours and friends are at risk and, are going through daily stress and uncertainty. A part of me wants to draw out my vacation and maybe even visit my best friend who currently lives in Malaysia. The other part wants to just head back, be by Haresh's side and demonstrate to my staff that I am back and going to be there until this thing passes and afterwards.

I have no idea when Liberia will be declared ebola free, especially since WHO projected that ebola will spread to a total of 20,000 people. Officialy, ebola has claimed 1,200 persons. We have a long way to go. How long can I stay away? 

What's making me making even more restless and anxious is that I can't get to Monrovia the way I usually do. My flight from Islamabad lands in Accra via Dubai. All flights from Accra to Monrovia have been suspended. I would have to fly up to Brussels and then to Monrovia. It'll cost me a couple thousand bucks more. 

Do I wait for things to appear to be marginally better before going back? What signs should I be looking for? Resumption of flights to Monrovia from Accra?  

The lifting of the quarantine of West Point is a good sign that the government is going to avoid taking actions which could result in chaos and insecurity.

According to all my friends, everyone is avoiding handshakes and direct contact. That means, we wouldn't let anyone touch Kavita. That could get frustrating and, what if we make a lapse and then start panicking? Haresh, as much as he wants us back, is saying what if Kavita gets sick? The clinics and hospitals in Monrovia can't cope but with the exception of one private clinic, I wouldn't trust any medical institution in Liberia anyway. 

Venting my rage has not made me any less angry nor helped me clear my mind. Maybe I should take a walk, lift my self-imposed week-long quarantine and go for a walk. 

1 comment:

  1. Very thought-rovoking blob but take heart Farzana. What is it that they say there: 'Prevention is better than cure'. There is no cure for ebola and you are right to keep Kavita safe. So NO REGRETS! Just cos you're in limbo doesn't mean that you can't make some short-term plans! xxxxx Liz