In Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the hundreds of thousands of Ebola survivors who were quarantined, treated, cured and discharged are steadily being rejected by their families and communities, either out of fear of contamination or ignorance.
In Guinea, where the virus first erupted towards the end of 2013, they call survivors ‘Lazarus,’ after the Biblical figure who died but was miraculously brought back to life by Jesus Christ.
In Sierra Leone, the country’s leading daily, the Concord Times, recently published a story about Mariama Kamara, an Ebola survivor who lives in Grafton, in the Western Rural District of Freetown. She has accused her community of discrimination. “I intend to leave this place for another settlement since most of my friends and other people here are in the habit of calling me ‘Ebola patient’,” Ms Kamara said.
In neighbouring Liberia, Conciliation Resources, an outfit working to promote peace in the country, published a story about Maima Kiawu, a widow who lost her husband to Ebola. Maima’s husband worked in Tubmanburg, about 100 kilometres from Monrovia, and came into contact with someone infected with the virus. Upon his return, he unknowingly infected his wife.
In less than 48 hours, after showing symptoms, he was rushed to hospital, where he died on arrival. Maima and her seven children were quarantined for 21 days, but before these could elapse, Maima died, along with her nine-month-old baby.
The surviving six children were stigmatised by the rest of the community, according to the report by Conciliation Resources. “Old friends no longer wanted to see them. They could not go to the mosque to pray, and the community members forbade their children from associating with the orphans left behind. Even after they successfully completed another 21 days of quarantine and were declared Ebola-free, the community refused to interact with them for fear of contracting the disease. The children could not even buy anything from the market because no one would accept their money.”
In Guinea, the first person to recover from Ebola and be discharged from the hospital in Conakry is a 30-year-old doctor, who begged for anonymity, apparently to escape stigmatisation.
In all three these countries, efforts are being made by their respective governments and grassroots organisations to fight the stigma marking survivors.
In Liberia, Conciliation Resources said community meetings to fight against stigma and the marginalisation of Ebola survivors are generally well attended by opinion leaders, such as the imam and town chief and other people of stature who have significant influence in shaping the mind-set of the community.
Survivors and health-care workers are also invited to join meetings. The discussions are facilitated by organisers who begin by reminding community members of life before Ebola; how people relied on each other as a community, how they farmed, prayed and ate together, and will often conclude by saying that their common enemy is the Ebola virus – not the people it infects.
In Sierra Leone, Deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation II, Madina Rahman, has reiterated that “Ebola survivors should not be discriminated against in any shape or form”, adding that they should be ambassadors sensitising residents in their respective communities.
However, in spite of all these efforts, the prevalence of stigma and discrimination against Ebola survivors is still high. In early 2015, shortly after the epidemic struck, the European Union launched a 6.9 million-euro communications project with the intention of spreading messages to halt the transmission of the virus. Coordinated by Beneficiary communications, or Bencom, and Model E experts of the International Federation of the Red Cross (Dakar Cluster Office), the project became a household name thanks to the work undertaken by the national Red Cross Societies, their project managers, supervisors and volunteers. Perhaps a similarly coordinated effort is needed.