Thanks to Bruce Weaver for sending the link to this report by Umaru Fofana in the online magazine Matter: How to Ignore a Plague. Click through to read the whole article; it's highly informative and very well written. Excerpt:
In the doorway of an Ebola isolation facility in Kenema, Sierra Leone, stood a group of 10 or so patients. I could see them from a distance—I’d been advised by the medics not to get too close since I was not wearing protective clothing. They were mostly women, but I also saw two children: a boy and a girl. Ebola was eating him up. I was later told that the boy’s name was Kinnie, and that he was five years old. I shouted across to him, but he was too emaciated and weak to reply.
Inside the isolation wards were dozens of people who had tested positive for the rampaging hemorrhagic fever, including at least five nurses. They had apparently been infected by patients who had not been suspected of carrying the virus. Until recently, health workers didn’t use protective gloves unless they knew they were treating a confirmed case of Ebola—even though the virus is hard to diagnose, easily transmitted through bodily fluids, and Sierra Leone is in the middle of an outbreak that has stricken more than 300 and killed 92. One of the nurses died a few days ago. Her name was Sarah, and she got married last December. She was a few weeks pregnant.
Despite the danger facing these medical workers, they are being blamed for the disease by the public—a public so poorly informed about Ebola that many didn’t know of its existence before the outbreak began.
A few yards from the isolation facility lay the main wards of the Kenema Government Hospital. Many patients there fled after one of the nurses tested positive, headed for who knows where. And a couple of days after I visited, a colleague of mine watched relatives of Ebola patients pelt the hospital itself with stones. Confirmed Ebola cases are quarantined, and the attackers accused the nurses of sorcery and demanded their sick relatives be released to them — if they were dead, they said, they wanted the bodies to bury themselves.
Such is the respect and reverence people have for the dead that the way Ebola victims are laid to rest is hard for most to stomach. Medics place them into a bag, and bury them without ceremony in a mass grave. The confrontation became so violent that police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, and have remained in and around the hospital since.
It is amazing—shocking—to see the denial of so many people here. Just 500 yards from the hospital, a group of revelers stood outside a video center (as cinemas are known here), pulling on cigarettes and even sharing the same butt. Backslapping and hugging having just come from the unventilated room. Sweating profusely in the 90-degree heat. There are other such video centers throughout Kenema, all over Sierra Leone.
Beneath the veneer of that excitement and camaraderie lies the acrid reality that Ebola is tearing the country apart. The next day, at the Holy Trinity Secondary School, I saw scores of high school kids playing soccer. Some had removed their white uniforms to avoid them getting dirty, and their bodies glistened. The longer they played, the more they sweated, and the more dangerous the game became for them. But they were either oblivious to the dangers of a virus that can kill nine in 10, often by internal bleeding and organ failure, or they did not care.
Kenema hosts the only Ebola-testing laboratory in the country, one of the best in the world, run by the U.S.-based Metabiota and Tulane University. And yet some people here are even questioning the existence of the disease. At a roadside store selling candies and sodas, I talked with a high school student who gave his name only as Konneh.
“Ebola is unreal,” he told me. He peeled a banana and guffawed before biting into it. “I have not seen anyone who has suffered from or died of it,” he said as he munched.
There are other conspiracy theories flying fast and thick. My mother fell ill last week, while I was on a short trip abroad. She was vomiting and needed to see a medic, but some of my relatives advised her against going to hospital. They had heard rumors of a desperate attempt to stem the spread of Ebola: patients with signs of the disease, which include symptoms as broad as fever, were being injected with poison by health workers. It was only after my return that I could persuade her to seek treatment.