No Touching in Liberia

(I wrote this post back in November, but I got so busy I never got around to posting it. But here it is now!)

I don’t spend much time outside of the compound. Traveling is discouraged because of infection risks. I’m not allowed to take any public taxis or walk around in market areas. It’s quite the opposite of my Peace Corps experience.

We have a strict no touching policy as well — that means no shaking hands, hugging, no pats on the back, etc. It’s less because of a fear of getting Ebola and more just because we can’t afford to get sick. A 24-hour flu is terrifying when you have to isolate yourself and wait to see if any other Ebola symptoms pop up.

The effects of going without any kind of physical contact is a little weird — when I watch someone rest an arm on someone else’s shoulder in a movie my stomach jumps and I want to yell “WATCH OUT!” to the people in the movie. Even in my dreams I find myself observing our no touching policy. There’s no escaping it.

Some people take it harder than others; for me it hasn’t been so bad yet. I think that because I’m such a tactile person, I’m used to living without the levels of physical human connection that I would choose for myself. The few hugs you get in American culture have never cut it for me, so life without them isn’t much worse. It’s only been when I’ve lived with dancers and clowns that I felt my needs met on that level.

The Liberians aren’t shaking hands anymore either. It’s tragic, because the Liberian hand shake has always been a major part of their national identity. Before Ebola, if you did not greet someone and shake their hand, it was considered rude. It was essential for communicating trust and friendship. But now it’s gone, and it makes all social interactions feel off-kilter.

Other cultural practices have conspicuously disappeared: Before Ebola, two friends might have eaten rice from the same bowl, but will not risk it now. Burial practices, of course, are also no longer able to be observed. All of these practices that used to express love, respect, and togetherness are no longer safe.

My team lead here at Samaritan’s Purse who’s lived in Liberia over ten years told me a sad story from her time working in an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) here before they were evacuated. She was lamenting the loss of the Liberian handshake when another international nurse who had not been in Liberia before the epidemic happened to overhear. This nurse excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, I know the Liberian handshake! It’s this right?” and instead demonstrated the elbow bump that people were doing in lieu of the real handshake. For anyone who’s spent time in Liberia, that should hit you right in the feels.

Aside from the no touching policy, we also are constantly taking our temperature. When I got here, we were taking our temperature twice a day; now it’s four times. We’re supposed to log all our temperatures and send it back to headquarters. My temperature right now is 36.7°C, in case you were wondering. It might seem a little bit excessive, but Samaritan’s Purse has wanted to send the message to the public that we’re taking every precaution here.

Even when we go back to the states, these precautions continue. Before we’re allowed to go home and live with our family and friends, we are required to observe a mandatory 21-day isolation first. For the people who have left their families back in the states, this is a real hardship.

But even with these strict policies and the fact that none of our international staff is working in high-risk zones (over and above what any other organization has in place right now), there’s still public backlash. One of my coworkers, who left his family to come here, told me that parents in the states were not allowing their kids to play with his kid for fear of Ebola. His kid hasn’t been in Liberia in ages. Maybe people think you can somehow catch Ebola over Skype?

My fellow Peace Corps volunteers are feeling the stigma too even though we were evacuated way back in August. One of my friends was refused medical care. This blows my mind a little bit. Of all people, I would expect doctors to know how this disease worked.

Even with all my work, I was finally able to break away from the compound last weekend and visit Marshall, the community I lived and worked in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was bittersweet, because I couldn’t hug any of them or shake their hands. All my stuff I had left behind was still safe in my house, and the kids told me they were cutting the grass and minding the place while I was gone. They’ve been unaffected by Ebola so far, and were all in good spirits. I can only pray that it stays that way.

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One Response to No Touching in Liberia

  1. The bit about Nimu was sad. It embarrassed me for America’s medical profession. –Curt

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