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A Tale of Two Epidemics

by Fatma Eljack - Senior Programme Manager for Learning, Safer Edge

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

– A Tale of Two Cities

Monrovia: 2014

It’s the crème brûlée I remember most. It was perfection! Dominique, our logistician, was hosting the dinner party and he took his cooking very seriously. He had brought the ingredients with him from Europe and impressed us with his flambé skills. After dinner, we pushed the furniture aside, turned up the music and danced until the early hours – but no one touched each other. We were dancing during the Ebola epidemic.

I was posted to Monrovia as the Head of Protection department with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in August 2014. The Ebola outbreak had established in Liberia and swept into neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone. Ebola is a terrifying disease and not something you want to mess with! Over 50% of those who contract the disease do not survive and those who do can be very significantly impaired. Those who survived could be left blind or deaf, have continued sleep disturbance or a multitude of other ailments.  

Ebola is spread through bodily fluids and only by physical contact. The symptoms included fever and sweating, vomiting and haemorrhaging. Contact with any bodily fluids could result in contracting the virus.

To mitigate that risk, I had no physical contact with another human throughout my 12 months in Liberia and to enter all buildings you had to have your temperature taken. I washed my hands in chlorinated water so often they became raw. Even now, whenever I visit a swimming pool the smell of chlorine takes me back to Monrovia. That hand washing was essential to minimise the risk both to myself, my team and those we interacted with in the course of our work.

And we did continue to work. While no physical contact with others was allowed, we still had a lot of scope. Ebola didn’t prevent us from spending time with others. And that was important and a welcome relief. It was stressful watching and working in Monrovia’s detention facilities and prisons with Ebola as an ever-present risk. Dominique hosted dinner parties, we held movie nights, group yoga sessions and were able to visit some of Monrovia’s beautiful beaches. There were even a couple of approved restaurants where it was possible to dine throughout the epidemic. (If you get the chance to go to Monrovia, I’d recommend the crispy spicy tuna salad at the Mamba Point Hotel.)

When my time in Liberia came to an end in August 2015, I travelled to the ICRC headquarters in Geneva for my debrief. Colleagues would approach with an outstretched hand or lean forward for faire la bise. My initial reaction left their hand hanging in the air or to jump back if they leaned into kiss me. Ebola had changed me and how I interacted. 

London: 2020

Six years later I’m married, working for Safer Edge and living in London – a very different life and in the midst of a very different epidemic. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought memories of my time in Liberia rushing back.

My London friends who know about my experiences in Liberia think that I must be well-prepared for the social distancing and isolation. But I’m not sure I am. My day to day life now is very different from that which I experienced in Monrovia. In Monrovia, we were very careful but we could still move around and work.

The changes we have seen in London over the past few weeks have been shocking. Supermarket shelves emptied, schools closed, exams cancelled, the government issuing advice that only truly essential travel can be undertaken, millions staying at home, home-schooling, unable to see loved ones.

Over time, over months, that lack of human contact can be difficult and emotionally tiring. It was during the Ebola outbreak and it is now.  We begin to crave and miss the small things. I have been craving my favourite almond cookies from the local coffeeshop. This evening I’ve been driven to baking my own biscuits…that’s how I’m choosing to cope. And we all will find ways to cope just like we did in Monrovia.

All over social media are stories of people coping with the changes COVID-19 has imposed on them. Maybe we don’t all cope well initially but changes in our routines normalise even during the most abnormal scenarios. The home schooling becomes easier, the video calls with colleagues become less awkward.

When friends ask what I learnt in Liberia that is useful to me today in London, my answer has nothing to do with health precautions or behaviours. Rather, it is that we are adaptable and we will always develop unique, individual ways to be resilient. Perhaps this is why the current pandemic doesn’t worry me. In 2014, I saw another epidemic and I’ve seen how people – and how I myself – can adapt and respond. I know that we will do that again.


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