A Christmas Tribute to Liberia’s Unsung Heroes

Tomorrow morning, hundreds of thousands of Liberians will wake up, attend their local church, and gather with their loved ones to relax and rejoice. The occasion? Christmas, a day on which 85 percent of Liberia’s four million people celebrate family, selflessness, peace on earth and good will to all.

As Liberians observe this important public holiday, I can’t help but think of those whose selflessness and good will made it possible for so many to celebrate: the grassroots groups, local and traditional leaders, health workers, and everyday citizens who fought Ebola and saved lives.

Before joining American Jewish World Service (AJWS) in July of 2015, I lived in Liberia for two and a half years and spent six months supporting the Ebola response there. Having watched the crisis unfold, I can attest to the absolutely critical role Liberian responders played in turning the tide on what became the worst Ebola outbreak in history—one that has claimed nearly 5,000 Liberian lives. As I write this piece from my desk in New York, I am grateful to be working for AJWS, which has long supported the people of Liberia.

Liberia confirmed its first Ebola cases on March 30, 2014. I remember the day well: I was at my computer at UNICEF’s office in Monrovia, the country’s capital, when my colleague Adolphus got a call. He hung up the phone and declared to me and our fellow office mates: “I have to go to the Ministry of Health. Ebola has been confirmed. We’re in an emergency.” He then rushed out.

What happened next shocked the world: After a small initial wave of confirmed cases that were limited mainly to the northeastern county of Lofa, Ebola reemerged and hit Monrovia in early June 2014, sparking a second wave. This second wave proved far more deadly than the first, with case totals skyrocketing from dozens to hundreds per week due to a lack of needed supplies, personnel and logistics to contain the virus, and widespread doubt and denial preventing many Liberians from taking key preventive and protective measures.

What Liberians like my colleague Adolphus did in the coming weeks and months filled me with deep admiration and respect. In the face of great uncertainty and with limited initial emergency support from abroad, concerned citizens across the country took action to stop the brutal virus from spreading in their communities. When thoughts of leaving Liberia due to the outbreak entered my head, I thought of these local heroes, who could not leave. I also reminded myself that my risk of contracting Ebola, which spreads through infected bodily fluids, was comparatively low: I wasn’t a health worker, after all, nor was I regularly entering high-risk communities.

I stayed in Liberia until September 2014, when I had to leave the country due to a family emergency. In the weeks that preceded my departure, Liberia declared a national emergency and the international community began ramping up desperately-needed support. This support came in the form of additional foreign doctors and nurses to help treat patients, engineers to construct more Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs), mobile labs to expedite testing of blood samples, technical experts to assist in tracking cases and analyzing trends, and thousands of metric tons of medications and supplies.

This influx of foreign assistance played a critical role in bringing Liberia from a place where, in August and September 2014, hundreds of Ebola cases were being reported each week, to a place where less than a dozen confirmed cases have been reported in the last 10 months. But this support would have been insufficient if Liberians themselves hadn’t bravely stepped up the way they did.

From supporting door-to-door awareness campaigns, to working in ETUs, to burning or burying the bodies of the dead to ensure others were not infected by the corpses—Liberians from all walks of life answered the call to fight for their country in whatever way they could. Sometimes they worked as part of international or national groups; sometimes they leveraged their existing roles as religious, traditional or local leaders to make a difference; often, they worked through grassroots groups.

One of the most important accomplishments of Liberian responders was convincing the population that Ebola was real and to heed the advice of health experts. When the outbreak was first declared, many Liberians were convinced it had been fabricated by the government as “money-making business.” They thought this because in Liberia, corruption is an open secret and trust in government is low. Others believed the virus was a curse from God. Still others thought that it had been brought to Liberia by foreign aid workers, or that it could be treated with kola nut or other home remedies. Each time one Ebola myth was debunked, another arose to take its place. Such was the level of fear and mistrust in the general population, which struggled to accept that such a horrific disease could be real.

In this challenging context, Liberian outreach workers succeeded where national government officials and foreign aid workers could not. Working through local leadership structures or with foreign, national and community-based groups, these outreach workers were able to go deep into the most resistant communities and convince the most doubtful minds that Ebola is real and health precautions must be followed. My former coworker, Adolphus, was one of these responders. They were successful because, unlike many central government and foreign officials, they were trusted by the local population. While we cannot count the number of lives they saved in the same way that we can count the number of survivors discharged from the treatment units, their impact was no less significant.

I miss working in Liberia, but I am happy that my new professional home, AJWS, understands the critical role local people play in responding to emergencies like Ebola. When the outbreak in Liberia began to escalate in mid-2014, AJWS primarily targeted its emergency funds to Liberian organizations. AJWS did this because its staff knows that in the time of an emergency, local groups have the trust and access needed to deliver life-saving messages and support to even the most hard-to-reach, marginalized or in the case of Ebola, resistant communities.

Liberia has twice been declared Ebola-free since I last visited in March. Each declaration has been followed by the reemergence of a small cluster of Ebola cases; however, the country has not reported a new Ebola case in over a month and appears on the path to stamping out the virus once and for all. Yet too many of the everyday Liberian heroes who made this possible have gone unsung. This post is a humble attempt to pay tribute to these heroes—and a plea to people around the world to acknowledge and honor them as well.


ziv_carolyn-300x300Carolyn Ziv is a Communications Officer for Human Rights and Story Development at AJWS.