The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, has killed nearly 2,500 people since it was first identified in the region in December 2013. But when the Ebola virus hit the coastal city of Monrovia, Liberia, it sent crisis responders into a new level of panic. Ebola has never before hit as densely populated an area as Monrovia with such force. While Ebola was only first identified in the city in June, the county where the capital is located now accounts for nearly 40 percent of the deaths in the country.
Of all the countries now dealing with Ebola, Liberia is now in the worst condition. The virus first entered the country in March and three months later hit the capital city, spreading quickly and threatening to infect large numbers of people. Sierra Leone and Guinea have managed to keep cases mostly to the rural areas and Nigeria was able to quickly quarantine the small outbreak in Lagos. But in Monrovia, the virus is still uncontrolled. The city has become the “worry of the world,” says Andrew Hoskins, Medical Teams International country director. One of the reasons that Liberia is facing a more acute crisis than its neighbors is that high levels of corruption have created widespread distrust in the government—undermining its efforts to contain the virus.
In Monrovia, as in other parts of the country, denial and community resistance greeted the government’s efforts, meaning that early Ebola cases in the city were difficult to identify and follow-up with, Hoskins said. “Distrust in the government was a big part of why [Ebola] exploded,” said Liebrecht Lierman, country director of African Development Corps.
When Ebola first appeared in Liberia, many of the people in the country thought it was a scam crafted by the government to attract funds from international donors. This meant that Ministry of Health messages on precautions to avoid transmission fell on deaf years. Coupled with a culture that values close interactions with friends and loved ones and beliefs that medical ailments can sometimes result from “juju,” a kind of voodoo magic, residents’ mistrust of government has carried Liberia to its current state of crisis.
One morning in July, Satta Watson woke up to see about 150 people standing outside of the window of her home in Monrovia. Seven people had died in her neighbor’s family across the street in the previous month, but many community members doubted that Ebola was the cause of the deaths. That morning, the community gathered to prevent representatives of the Ministry of Health, accompanied by local politicians, from taking away another ill neighbor.
Watson, like many other Liberians, initially believed that the government was exaggerating the outbreak for political reasons. “I was hearing people tell me that what was happening wasn’t Ebola, that whatever it was had been created in labs as an effort to kill Liberians,” she said. “That it was a way the government could get money from the World Health Organization so that it could then put the money in its pockets.” Now Watson accepts that Ebola is in the country—but doesn’t trust that the government is handling the response effectively, or even properly identifying when people have Ebola.