Reporting On Ebola: An Abandoned 10-Year-Old, A Nervous Neighborhood
Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, is under nighttime curfew as that country struggles to contain the Ebola epidemic. On Wednesday, an entire neighborhood in Monrovia was quarantined, sealed off from the rest of the city by the government. The neighborhood is called West Point and it's where a holding center for patients suspected of having Ebola was attacked over the weekend. Patients fled, and looters carried off bloody mattresses and other possibly infected supplies. The NPR team in Liberia visited West Point on Tuesday. We spoke to correspondent Nurith Aizenman about the experience.
What is West Point like?
It is a sort of finger of land, a little sandy peninsula that juts out from a nicer area of Monrovia, abutting a river on one side and the ocean on the other. It's about 800 meters long and 550 meters wide. There are only two roads in that are paved. The rest is a thicket of shacks and houses and huts, pretty much all one story and built of plywood or cement blocks, with corrugated metal on the rooftops. Between them are sandy pathways. It's so closely packed that in some cases if you're trying to get to your house you have to walk through someone else's house.
Both sides of the paved roads are packed with shops selling all manners of goods, vegetables, fish. There are throngs of people, carrying big buckets on their heads with all sorts of goods. If you drive in, you gently nudge your way forward, parting this sea of people.
And that's where NPR's photographer David Gilkey encountered the 10-year-old in the picture above?
Residents had originally found this boy naked on the beach. They dragged him up to a sort of alleyway and put a shirt and pants on him. But beyond that no one wanted to touch him, no one wanted to give him shelter, because it seems he was a child who had been at that holding center for Ebola patients.
Where is the boy now?
A woman went to a nearby health clinic to see if they would take the boy in, but she said the clinic refused because he may have Ebola. The boy was looking very ill at this point. But we heard from someone in West Point that the boy has now been taken to JFK hospital, where the government, with the assistance of the World Health Organization, has just opened the fourth treatment center for Ebola. And although I haven't confirmed it, we heard accounts that the boy seemed to have revived a little bit.
What do people in West Point think about the raid on the center?
We talked to several people who were upset that there was no effort to alert the community as to what this center was about, and they were also upset that the center had accepted people from other neighborhoods.
Some people said they want the center to reopen as long as they would be assured that no one from outside the community would be brought there and that they would be included in communications about the center.
You mentioned yesterday that some Liberians are skeptical about Ebola — they think it's something the government made up to get more foreign aid. What do they think in West Point?
We've heard reports that at the raid, people were shouting "Ebola doesn't exist." But if you think the disease doesn't exist, why would you be mad that people from other neighborhoods with this supposed nonexistent disease would have been brought in? The bottom line is that there is a lot of fear and confusion.
Is this a tough story to report?
It's difficult. Normally you would not be afraid of children. But now you have to be wary of children because a child will come and tug on your sleeve. That's not threatening in other places, but here things are different. I keep my hands in my pockets at all times.
Update on Friday, Aug. 22, 11:50 a.m.
Getty photographer John Moore, who also took pictures of the boy, spoke to his aunt on Friday. She was checking into a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Monrovia with her five children — all of them, including her, suspected Ebola cases. The aunt said that Saah died Wednesday at JFK hospital.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Liberia has been overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak. This country has seen the highest number of deaths so far. Late last nightly Liberia's president announced a nine p.m. curfew in the capital Monrovia. She also ordered a quarantine of the city's overcrowded West Point neighborhood, where earlier this week a holding center for Ebola patients was raided. People dragged patients away. This morning a new riot broke out in that same area. And NPR's Nurith Aizenman witnessed the violence. She joins us on the line from Monrovia. Nurith, good morning.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So tell us exactly what exactly you saw.
AIZENMAN: Well, I, along with the rest of NPR's team here - we were in West Point. We had made it past several blockades that security forces had set up sealing off the neighborhood. And I should say this is one of the capital's poorest neighborhoods. A lot of people there feel very different disenfranchised. They've had very little support as this outbreak has been raging in their midst. And it's an area that basically consists of a finger of land jutting out from central Monrovia into the Atlantic Ocean.
It's quite small with only two very narrow roads in. So as we were walking up one of those roads we saw a contingent of police escorting this local official and her family, including several children, out. And following very close behind them was a throng of furious people just very angry. They were shouting, they started throwing chunks of concrete and smaller rocks and things escalated very quickly from there. Everyone started racing towards us and security forces around us started firing shots in rapid succession. We saw them holding their assault rifles level at the crowd, not in the air. And at least one person was shot. He was a boy of about 12.
GREENE: And do know what happened to that boy?
AIZENMAN: We don't know. Tommy Trenchard, the NPR photographer we were working with, witnessed it. And try to call for an ambulance and we heard that someone had picked him up but we haven't confirmed that.
GREENE: There are any number of reasons why you could imagine people in this neighborhood being incredibly scared and incredibly angry about what's happening in the country right now. But anything specific that you feel like sparked this rioting this morning?
AIZENMAN: Well, it's been a growing situation. Late last night the government announced that West Point was going to be quarantined. And they say they're not letting anyone enter or leave for at least 21 days. That's how long it takes to know if someone who was exposed to another person with Ebola may have become infected themselves. So, the people in West Point woke up this morning to find out that their community is being completely blocked off. They're being told, you have this deadly highly infectious disease running through your neighborhood and you cannot leave.
GREENE: So, if you're describing a place that's being literally sealed off how are people getting food and supplies to sustain themselves?
AIZENMAN: I spoke with the Minister of the Interior this morning. And he said that the government will be supplying food rations. But by late morning people were already starting to panic over whether this was going to happen. They were shouting, we need to get out, we need food. So, when police arrived to escort this local official's family out I think it was just the last straw. Now government officials say that they were bringing out that family because their home was threatened.
GREENE: Nurith, why exactly did the government choose this West Point neighborhood for quarantine?
AIZENMAN: Ebola has been spreading in West Point with particular speed. As you mentioned on Saturday an angry mob stormed a holding facility that the government had set up in the neighborhood for people suspected of having Ebola. People were very upset because the government had not explained why it was setting up that facility. You know, when a group like Doctors Without Borders, an aid group like them opens up a center, they spend a time laying the groundwork with the community, getting people's consent. That was not done with this government holding facility. They were also bringing in people with suspected Ebola from other neighborhoods and they weren't offering supportive care there. The center essentially just became a dumping ground for people with Ebola. So, when it was raided on Saturday, 17 patients who were there were either carried off or forced to flee into the neighborhood where it's likely that they came into contact with many others. And Ebola is highly contagious. It's spread through direct contact with a bodily fluid including not just blood and vomit but of sweat of an infected person. So, there's no knowing how many more people have now been infected.
GREENE: We've been speeding to NPR's global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman. She's reporting from Monrovia in a chaotic and intense scene in the neighborhood of West Point that is under a strict quarantine right now to contain the Ebola outbreak. And there was rioting this morning. Nurith Thank you.
AIZENMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.