Ellen Higgins grew up in a country where, almost as I write this, a man falls dead in the streets but no one except specially-suited health workers will go near his body to retrieve it.
The loneliness of the man’s final hours I cannot imagine.
Sick, probably with the deadly Ebola virus, no one dares come to his aid in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
Ellen, a newer Canadian who cherishes Red Deer now as her home, was born in Liberia.
She’s talking to me because I want to ask her about Ebola in her homeland. In the end, it turns out that’s not really her biggest concern.
Liberia is one of four West African countries suffering through the largest Ebola outbreak ever. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it an international public health emergency.
It’s the first such Ebola outbreak in West Africa, affecting Guinea (where the outbreak began), Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. Liberia was where most new cases were identified earlier this week, 71 of 128.
There is no cure for Ebola. Fears are rising that the disease could spread to Western nations.
There are a few bits of drugs, untested on humans. The way has been cleared to use them now anyway. It’s raised ethical concerns about who got, and who should get, these drugs.
The truth is there’s not enough right now, even if they do work, to save those in danger, and those frontline workers who are trying to contain the outbreak are brave souls.
By this week, there are almost 2,000 suspected or confirmed cases recorded by authorities, and about 1,000 people had died during the outbreak that began in March. The death rate is over 54 per cent. Imagine if every second person you know were to die suddenly. Some death rates for Ebola have been much higher.
So yes, Ebola has everyone scared. Canadians collectively held their breaths last weekend when we learned that an unwell person who had returned to Ontario from Africa was being tested for Ebola. The results were negative. Everybody exhaled.
The virus, no less foul than a slew of serial killers, is spread from animals to humans and by direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, diarrhea and vomit. Victims suffer high fevers, internal and external bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea.
For Ellen, who came to Canada as a refugee in 2005 after civil war in her homeland, her concern as a child growing up in the Liberian city of Buchanan was not Ebola.
“My concern was a clean environment.”
And today, as she continues to hear about friends affected by the Ebola outbreak — one having already lost seven family members to it — she still feels strongly about the need for a clean, healthy environment.
Ellen, who smiles when I ask her age and answers “30-something,” is a single parent in Red Deer, with three children.
What she hears now from her family still in Liberia, including her father, is that because Ebola has caused tighter border controls and even provinces under quarantine within Liberia, the price of food is going up.
Her father tells her it has become very expensive.
The staple food is rice and what might have cost $50 for a bag is now $75, she says.
“And there are no jobs in Liberia.”
“Some of our friends died (from Ebola). My dad and brothers and sisters (who live in Thinkers Village south of Monrovia) are worried.” Ellen’s great aunt was very sick, possibly from Ebola, but has recovered.
The clean environment Ellen talks about is not just safe drinking water. People live in large groups in single rooms, thus making it easier for illness to spread.
But water is a very big issue to her now, as it was when she was a child.
“(Water) wasn’t purified … we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have any voice to ask the government what to do. … I believe the environment has to be clean.”
People defecate in plastic bags and then throw the bags away nearby. “It’s unhealthy but they do not have the means to build a toilet. They focus on only to eat.”
Ellen doesn’t dispute the cause of the Ebola outbreak. But the focus needs to be on a clean environment and safe water, she believes.
As a child, she would get up at 3 a.m. to walk some distance so she could get a place in line at the one nearby hand pump. There was fighting, beating and cursing. Imagine, she says to me, having to walk all the way from south Red Deer to the north end of the city to get water, with people fighting each other along the way.
On her return to Liberia, “It’s very, very sad for me when I go to the market and see kids selling onions, cold water and they are not in school, with their bare feet and begging you, to say ‘Auntie can you buy my onions, can you buy my cool water because if I don’t go home with an income my mom gonna get mad, she gonna get sad. How we gonna eat?’ It makes me cry.”
“I believe Africa has to be united. … We have to come together and fund organizations to help our own people … people from Liberia, Nigeria and other places. … I tell people the white man is not going to tell you what to do, you have to use your common sense … they cannot do everything for us.”
Here and now, Ellen loves Red Deer and Canada. She suddenly starts singing a song she is composing — about Red Deer. In the moment, after talking about such difficult things, we both laugh.