West Point, Monrovia. Credit: FrontPageAfrica
If I were plotting a medical thriller, something like yesterday's attack on the West Point Ebola centre would have struck me as a very dubious plot point. Sure, I'd want the disease to spread, if only to ratchet up readers' desire to keep turning pages. But who would be crazy enough to deny Ebola, let alone determined enough to "liberate" at least 17 people down with confirmed cases?
Reality, unfortunately, is not bound by the demands of fiction for plausible, motivated behaviour. Now I'm wondering about the next plot point: what the government can do about it.
Google Maps tells me West Point is on a peninsula between the Mesurado River and the Atlantic. It's a little over a kilometer long and perhaps 300 meters wide at its narrowest point. We're told some 75,000 people live here, with little or no running water or sanitation. Now we've got 17 Ebola cases amid those thousands, presumably being cared for by plenty of family members and neighbours (and being shunned by others).
What happens when those 17 start dying, and what happens when their caregivers fall ill—some of them possibly as early as Monday or Tuesday?
In theory it might be possible to seal off the peninsula from downtown Monrovia. In practice it might be impossible, with people swimming across the river or down the beach.
But even if they could seal off West Point, what then? You can't let 75,000 people go without food or medical care; you have to bring such goods and services into the community and distribute them as needed.
But how do you provide medical care to new Ebola cases if thugs with clubs are going to show up? And what healthcare workers in their right minds will go into West Point anyway? How do you ensure that hungry people get the food they need, and that the thugs don't steal it? Can you depend on the police or the army to maintain order? Or will they vanish the moment they realize they may need to lay hands on an Ebola case?
For that matter, what happens to life and work in the rest of the city, whether or not West Point is sealed off? Will other Monrovians simply take off for Grandma's village, or hole up at home and hope their food outlasts the outbreak? How will the hospitals function with more patients and fewer nurses and doctors and ambulance drivers?
Thriller writers can make up anything that sounds plausible. But politicians and healthcare workers have to make up something that works, saving real people's lives and restoring order so other other real people can earn a living, care for their children, and hope for a better future.
Winston Churchill once observed that "The Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else." It's generally true of all of us. Finger-pointing and political posturing are tempting activities when you're clueless about what else to do, and the West African governments and their supporters are already happily damning and blasting one another.
But at some point they'll have to give it up, at least for the duration, and unite to tackle the problem in all its aspects, from poverty and ignorance on up. Otherwise they'll lend a new horror to the term "failed state."