Last month I received a call from Freetown. The fifteen-year-old Augusta Vandy had just died of Ebola. She was the eldest of five children whose parents had died of the disease. An aunt who had risked caring for them had also died. The house had been quarantined and the children left alone. Being the eldest, Augusta did her best to look after the others. Calls made by the Sierra Leonean diaspora on social media resulted in the King Partnership collecting two of them. One was found positive and treated for Ebola and the other was negative.
When Augusta started feeling ill and called for help, a social worker visited and advised her to keep hydrated, but what she really needed was medical care that a social worker cannot provide. Showing tremendous courage and leadership, the fifteen year old quarantined herself by moving to the balcony so her siblings; nine years old and five months old respectively would remain safe. Help did not come and on that Sunday morning, she died.
From London, I contacted the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society and a burial team removed her remains by the end of the day. Her siblings however, were left alone in a quarantined house with nothing. After yet more phone calls the girls were finally taken to Connaught hospital two days later. Thankfully, they have both tested negative and a local charity Melqosh Mission has agreed to foster them.
I could be angry that Augusta was let down by the system, that she did everything she could and no one turned up to help. I could shout about complicated and inefficient processes and extremely poor infrastructure. But all of us know this already, so I’ll just say Rest in Peace Augusta.
Instead, I’ll talk about the story that hardly anyone speaks about. The story of people dying not because they are ignorant or don’t understand the simple messages of avoiding body contact. It is the story of people who know the risks involved but still choose to care for their loved ones. People like Augusta’s aunt, like the young survivor who chose to nurse his dying father, like the Liberian nurse who made her own protective clothing and nursed her family.
These are the compassionate people who simply cannot sit and watch their loved ones die and do nothing. Some are fortunate they do not get infected, some do and survive but many sadly die. These people die because they love. With hospitals turning patients away and isolation centres in short supply, the choices people have are limited.
The remains of an Ebola infected person are highly contagious and when the corpses are left amongst the living it increases the chances of infection. It takes a tremendous amount of resilience to watch a loved one being ravaged by Ebola and not do something to help. They gradually waste away in a very gruesome and undignified manner yet their loved ones are advised not to touch them. For those that obey we can only imagine the psychological suffering they go through. Although they may survive, they will live with the consequences of the terrible choice that they were forced to make. We do not know yet the extent of emotional damage or what the implications for mental health will be.
In developed countries, despite messages that smoking is bad for health every year a shocking number of people die of smoking-related diseases. Behaviours are hard to change, as are acts of love and compassion ingrained through decades of culture and tradition.
It is easy to label Africans as illiterate, backward and uncivilised, but the act of touch is part of being human. As we face death and are in danger of losing our very humanity, the stigmatisation of Africans across the world is not helpful. It is yet another onslaught on our self-esteem and robs us of our dignity. What we need is more help to care for our loved ones safely.
In the absence of infrastructure and technology, teaching people to self-quarantine effectively would be a great help. Sharing information on how to care for the sick safely would be far more effective than saying people should not do it at all (as would providing low cost protective clothing for domestic use.) We need practical solutions for ordinary people. Most of all the rest of the world needs to remember that we are still part of the human race.
We are West Africans, we are not a virus.
Khadi Mansaray is a freelance writer, publisher and also produces and hosts the radio show Overcoming Ebola.