Working Behind the Scenes in the Fight Against Ebola
By Carolyn Baer, CARE’s Senior Technical Advisor, Sexual and Reproductive Health for Emergencies
Landing in Monrovia, Liberia, I immediately started taking in the sights and sounds of this small West African country that Ebola has hit so hard. My ultimate task was to provide operational support for colleagues directly addressing the Ebola crisis, but in the short term I was struck by how the health crisis already had influenced culture there.
Where one normally might shake a person’s hand to greet them, for example, they bumped elbows instead – thus respecting the “no-touch” rule that was commonly upheld by both the foreign aid workers and the Liberians. Having lived and worked in Africa for many years, I didn’t immediately adapt to the new greeting. For the first few days, as I extended my hand to introduce myself, the gesture would usually end with a light scold from one of the aid workers. This was only one of the many behavioral changes that Liberians have made since Ebola arrived and began ravaging their country.
It was a clear measure of how serious our work was.
As a CARE employee with years of experience in both global health development and emergencies, I was asked by the Liberian office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and eHealth Africa, a technology focused nonprofit and CDC partner, to visit Liberia for one month to provide operational and logistical support to the epidemiologists — both local and American — who were responding to the Ebola outbreak there. Many of the locations in which they worked were incredibly remote, with few amenities, and that only compounded the need for operational oversight.
In some cases, for instance, it took two or three days to travel about 375 miles. The roads contained deep trenches where rain collected, leaving drivers unsure of how deep the trenches were — or how safe the passage was. “Bridges” often were mere planks of wood casually thrown across a creek. Food and water were not readily available in some areas, leading the logistics team to recommend that traveling field teams carry with them at least two weeks’ worth of each. Field teams spent weeks at a time in these rural areas, walking between villages and working closely with officials from the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in order to support active surveillance, provide guidance on infection prevention and control activities, and determine contacts of known Ebola cases.
During my time there, I helped oversee the field team’s orientation, geographical placement and operational needs. I helped ensure reliable transportation, communication and administrative support so they could focus on their tasks in the field. This was a real-time global health emergency whose rapidly changing landscape was not always easy — but was always necessary — to navigate.
I am grateful to CARE, the CDC and eHealth Africa for the opportunity to have helped chart that course on the ground — and am humbled to have played a small part in the global effort. I deeply appreciate and respect all those who have engaged in the response, especially those on the front lines caring for and comforting others so directly caught in the crisis.