I’m writing this post at 34,000 feet, somewhere high above the eastern tip of Canada right now. By the time I post this, I’ll be back with my parents in California, thinking about my next move.
To say that I’m surprised to be headed where I’m headed is an understatement; if you had told me a week ago I’d be here right now, I’d have laughed in your face. But I should have known better: If there’s one thing that I’ve had to learn over and over during my short year in Liberia, it is the idea that anything is possible… a fact that can be alternatively wonderful and terrifying depending on which side of the coin you land.
This last week the coin flip landed on “nightmare” for the Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia, Serra Leone, and Guinea. We were all pulled from our sites and sent back to America due to concerns surrounding the Ebola epidemic that is sweeping through the region. Technically, it wasn’t an “evacuation” per se, (they’re calling it “scaling down” or “pulling back”) since Peace Corps fully expects us to be able to go back in a couple months. I’m not so optimistic. But maybe I shouldn’t be so negative… “anything can happen”, right?
The whole operation was completely unprecedented for Peace Corps. In Peace Corps’ history, this is the most countries evacuated at once, the most volunteers evacuated at once, and the first time an evacuation has been ordered due to a medical concern instead of an outbreak of violence in a country. Somehow, it’s satisfying to know we set a few records.
We were told the decision to evacuate came as a result of a number of recent developments in the Ebola problem — from what I understand, the straw breaking the camel’s back being that two volunteers in Liberia were exposed to the virus. (These volunteers are still in quarantine in Liberia but thankfully not exhibiting any symptoms of the illness). Again, Peace Corps fully expects we’ll go back to Liberia. They also emphasized that our “pulling back” was just precautionary: there was no immediate emergency.
As is typical, media reports surrounding the outbreak (and Peace Corps’ decision to put their posts on hold) are often sensationalist and misleading. While it is true that the virus is highly contagious and very deadly (death rates in epidemics can be 50%-90%), my danger of actually contracting Ebola was always really low.
Ebola is only transmitted through two ways: through infected bushmeat and from the body fluids of someone gravely ill. This means if you avoid bushmeat and are not a caretaker of sick people, your likelihood of being exposed to the virus is very low. The fact that we had two volunteers exposed was sort of a freak occurrence. Again, “anything is possible”… which is why Peace Corps took us out of that situation.
Really, with medical capacity and an educated public (that reports all possible cases), Ebola is easy to control. That’s why people aren’t afraid of an outbreak in America. Even if an Ebola-positive person made it to America, it would be stopped in its tracks by the CDC. In Liberia, by contrast, an absence of medical capacity combined with a “perfect storm” of cultural, educational, and historical factors are making it difficult to stop the spread of the virus. I’ll be talking more about this in a future post.
The Liberian reaction to our departure is one of shock, fear, and sadness. It’s especially scary for people because the last time the Peace Corps left it signaled the start of a sort of apocalypse for the country. People are wondering if this will be the start of another. It’s heartbreaking. As one of my top students said, “But with you people leaving it’s like we’re going to have to start from the beginning! Liberia doesn’t have time for that! We were just starting to recover. This Ebola destroys everything.”
It was difficult to leave my site. I had 24 hours to pack my things and say my goodbyes. Culturally, Liberians don’t rush anything, so the 24 hours was hard on all of us.
So that’s it for now. Even though I wish I were still in Liberia, it’ll be nice to see friends and family again. Please extend your grace to me as I re-adapt to American culture.