COVER STORY

The Ebola Web

Columbians race to stop an epidemic.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2014-15
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Anne LiuIn early November, Liu, after a short trip to New York, is on her way back to Guinea to train the people who will train the contact tracers in the mobile-phone system. At this point, two thousand Ebola cases have been reported in Guinea, with more than 1,100 deaths.

 

LIBERIA - “Whoa, they just found Ebola in Guinea,” said Ashoka Mukpo’s girlfriend last March. She was reading an article in Mukpo’s apartment in Monrovia, Liberia.

Mukpo ’12SIPA got a little nervous. Guinea and Liberia shared a 350-mile border. Well, that’s scary, he thought, but that’s not going to affect us.

Mukpo had first come to Liberia in 2011. Columbia’s Center for International Conflict Resolution had hired him to do a research project in Liberia through SIPA’s professional-development program. His job was to work with the UN peacekeeping mission to evaluate how the rush of foreign investment after the country’s 1999-2003 civil war was affecting the peace-building process. Liberia had a long history of turmoil over its natural resources, and there was concern at the mission about how the investment projects were sitting with local communities. Mukpo co-authored a report on investment and community relations, based on field interviews and talks with Liberian officials. In Mukpo’s view, many contracts were being imposed from the top down. Dissenting voices were ignored. Projects ought to be monitored, he felt, to make sure they didn’t stir up regional factionalism, antagonize communities, or bolster perceptions that the government was corrupt and negligent of the poor. There were a few NGOs that did that sort of work. Mukpo approached one group, called the Sustainable Development Institute, and offered his services as a writer and researcher. The group hired him, and Mukpo moved to Liberia full-time.

Now, in March 2014, the word “Ebola” was popping up.

“First we heard that it was under control, and then there were rumors that someone with Ebola traveled to the Firestone hospital from the Guinea border, which is quite a distance,” says Mukpo, thirty-three. “When we heard that, we tensed a little and thought, ‘If someone with Ebola made it all the way to this hospital, even past Monrovia, that could be a problem.’ Then things quieted down. For about a month, we didn’t really hear about any new cases. A few cases had been treated, but the government was very clear: ‘Ebola’s here, you need to watch out for it, you need to observe some safety protocols, but we have it under control.’”

Ashoka MukpoMukpo’s contract ended in May. When he went back to the US that month, the mood in Liberia was not one of panic. “The expats were afraid,” Mukpo says, “but the Liberians thought the whole thing was a lie. Not all Liberians — obviously there were Liberians who understood that this was a real medical crisis — but most people didn’t worry about it because they felt like it was a hoax, a scam by the government to get foreign aid. This is where history and the present intersect. There’s this historical dynamic of the central government exploiting the rural people — the settlers from America and their descendants ran the country, and there wasn’t much opportunity for indigenous people from rural areas, which was one of the main causes of the war. Now you have a government that’s been supported by donor organizations, NGOs, and the UN, and which has promised a more egalitarian system of governance. But my experience in Liberia was that the corruption and accountability issues have not been effectively addressed.”

In July, Ebola resurged. Mukpo, who was home in Providence, Rhode Island, saw reports that more cases were being found in Liberia — and then it was in Monrovia.

“I watched it on a week-by-week basis go from concerning to very alarming,” Mukpo says, “to a point that I started worrying about what it was going to do to the social and political fabric of the country.” He wrote articles examining the sociopolitical effects of the crisis and why things were spiraling. “I think if people had had more of a sense that their government was honest and had their best interests in mind,” he says, “they probably would have adopted preventative measures much quicker.” Mukpo saw a lot of discontent with the government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state and a Nobel laureate who was first elected in 2005. “If you look at the 2011 elections, the first round, she didn’t even win the majority of the votes. This is already a government that’s not terribly popular, and suddenly there’s this medical crisis that many are blaming on the government.”

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