Coronavirus Comes To West Africa
We arrived in Monrovia at night. I hate getting to cities after dark, especially when we aren’t entirely sure where we are supposed to be going, but when you’re hitchhiking there are things you cannot always control and the time you arrive at your destination is often one of them. We were getting lift from a lorry driver and we were stuck in traffic. It was getting late and we were trying to get in contact with our Couchsurfing host, Samuel, but so far he was not responding. Eventually we decided we’d make more headway by walking and hoping to score a taxi downtown, where we had earlier been told to meet Samuel. After managing to find a cab, the driver asked where we were going.
“Benson Street,” we said.
He was apprehensive. It didn’t make sense because we were cruising past illuminated storefronts, hotels, bars and restaurants, which was way more posh than anything we had seen in our last month in Guinea. But when we arrived on Benson Street, with its completely dark streets, packed with people and littered with garbage, I understood his concern.
With still no word from Samuel, we initially thought we’d find a bar to pop into, have a beer, and wait for him to get back to us. However, to stop on the streets in Africa is to draw attention to yourself. Usually the attention you receive is innocent curiosity at your presence or a desire to sell you something or even a genuine desire to help. When you show up in a sketchy part of a new city, at nighttime, with all of your shit, these are probably not the kinds of attention you will attract. Plus we are white and in the beginning stages of the global coronavirus pandemic (aka White Person Plague) hitting Africa.
So we abandoned our plan of finding a bar and instead settled on posting up on a well lit street and trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. It wasn’t long before we were spotted by a stocky and staggering man with a glass eye and a stutter that did not seem like a natural speech impediment. I thought he was drunk but he presented us with a tattered and faded ID card that read DEA Agent.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded to know.
“We are waiting on a friend,” we responded.
“Where did you come from?”
“The border from Guinea a few hours ago.”
“AND YOU DID NOT GO THROUGH THE QUARANTINE??”
At this point, Liberia had no confirmed or reported cases of coronavirus so quarantine was not required of people entering the country. We had come through a land border after 5 months in Africa and had been examined by numerous healthcare professionals upon our arrival. The likelihood that we were infected was as slim as it was for the local. But we were white, we had all of our bags with us and were obviously tourists.
The DEA man was not letting up and people began to notice. One man stepped in to see what was going on. He quickly saw we were being unfairly harassed by this man. “Leave these people alone, they have done nothing wrong. You are not a doctor, you have no authority to tell them what to do. They were already cleared at the border, they are not a threat,” one man continued to tell the DEA man, which at one point resulted in a fight that almost came to blows.
“You have no right to tell me what to do!” the DEA man shouted.
“You want to hit me?! Come on then, hit me! Come on, do it!” the other man replied, pushing the DEA man to instigate the fight.
After this a crowd of dozens of people gathered around us to see what the commotion was about. West Africans love drama and gossip and any time something is going down that seems likely to generate either one of these things, they flock to the scene.
People aren’t quiet bystanders either. Before we knew it we had at least 10 people yelling advice or questions at us and though the crowd was not hostile, it was a unnerving. The DEA man continued his rant as to why we should be immediately placed in quarantine. The crowd was not convinced and people began to tire of the man’s insults and angry energy.
We were still sitting on the bench we had procured when we were simply trying to avoid making a scene. People were surrounding us, trying to ask us questions about whether we had been tested, where we came from, why this guy was bothering us, what we should do. Everyone at once wanted to pitch in not so much to help but just to have their opinion heard. One guy ultimately lent us his phone to get in contact with Samuel.
Eventually Samuel showed up to meet us. He was brought into the drama and the DEA man began to chastise him about agreeing to host us. The man was relentless and we began to think that it was more about his desire not to lose face in front of the crowd than it was for his concern of the safety of others. After all, if we did have the virus, allowing a large group to form around us in close proximity to one another was a sure fire way to get everyone infected.
Samuel was not phased, however, and he ended up talking to a guy in the crowd who ended up bringing a car around. With one look, I knew we were about to dash and we grabbed our things and ran towards the car, shoving ourselves in as quickly as possible. The DEA man grabbed the door and began to force his way into the car. All of a sudden, we saw a wave of hands grab the man by the shoulders and pull him off the car and back into the crowd. We slammed the door and drove down side streets to escape the scene. Welcome to Monrovia.
The DEA man was freaked the fuck out. And even though he was being a prick, we understood why.
Liberia arguably suffered most during the 2013-2016 Ebola epidemic. The official death toll for the country is just shy of 5,000 with as many as 70% of the cases being unreported. For three years Liberia was gripped in a panic. Their healthcare system was weak to begin with and was crippled by the amount of treatment needed in such a short period of time. DEA man was a survivor, not only of the epidemic but we realized later, potentially of the disease itself.
Symptoms of what is described as “post-Ebola syndrome” include joint and muscle pain and spasms, neurological disorders such as memory loss and anxiety, and vision problems that sometimes result in blindness. He checked all of the boxes and with the level of intensity he was demonstrating in his fear of our presence, it wouldn’t surprise me if this guy had beaten Ebola and was now faced with the potential of going through yet another spread of a highly infectious disease. Even though the death toll and the symptoms of coronavirus are much less than Ebola, you wouldn’t know it from being in Liberia.
Most Liberians, it seems, still get their information from the radio. The programs are often led by a pastor and take the same tone as a heated sermon.
“YOU MUST STOP SHAKING HANDS! YOU MUST REPENT FOR YOUR SINS! MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS, THIS WICKED DISEASE CALLED THE CORONAVIRUS IS MUCH WORSE THAN EBOLA!”, we heard on the radio during one taxi ride.
In the days that followed, Liberia recorded it’s first case. Overnight, the waters turned and the mood shifted. Hand sanitizer and isopropyl alcohol became hot sellers in the kiosks of street vendors. Buckets with soapy water appeared outside of every building in town. People, with no authority on healthcare related matters, began preaching in public spaces about how the country had been punished for the people’s sins. Repent was the answer to the spread of the disease. On a bus ride into town one day we heard a lady proselytizing, “Repent for your sins and this virus will not touch your house!” While Gabe and I expected to see eye rolls or blank stares of people tuning out the relentless diatribe as people do in the West, we were shocked to hear a chorus of “Amen!”
Each day every bank we passed had a line of people outside wrapping around the buildings of people flocking to pull out their money. We were trying to sort out our next visas and went to one bank to pull out money from the ATM. A man in a full plastic face shield approached the crowd of waiting bank-goers and began a 15 minute spiel of how eating apples and not drinking hot beverages out of plastic would prevent coronavirus and cancer.
We noticed that we were getting a different reaction from people as well. When we arrived, it was nothing but smiles and high-fives. Now, it was scowls and suspicious looks. While people always ask where we are from, these days we knew the question was being asked for different reasons. It was accompanied by “Why did you come here?” and “What is the virus like in your country?”
We knew that if cases in Liberia continued to emerge, it could be seriously problematic for us. We were already targets for sneers and questioning. Coronavirus was seen as a European disease, aka a white skin disease. It was as if people thought that because we were white, we were more likely to contract the virus and were intentionally coming to their country to spread it to the locals. People were beginning to avoid us. They would cross the street to not walk next to us. Taxi drivers didn’t want to give us rides.
One day we were waiting for a bus to leave downtown with our Liberian friend. A man called her over to tell her not to stand next to us because we had the virus. She told him we were her friends and we were all together. He immediately pushed her away and though people around laughed at him, we knew there was a darker, more serious layer to his warning. In a matter of days we had become social pariahs and we knew it was likely to continue.
Rumors were afoot of imminent border closures. We didn’t want to leave Liberia. There was still so much we wanted to see and more places we wanted to explore. However, after a few days of deteriorating public opinion towards travelers of the white variety, we decided to leave and head for Ghana so we could ride this thing out in a more developed country. If the borders closed before we got there, at least we could make it to Cote D’Ivoire, which was infinitely more developed than Liberia.
Never did we contemplate getting a flight home. We had been in Africa for 5 months but were feeling like we were just starting to get into actual Africa. People criticized our decision but at the end of the day our reasoning was this: we can get to a place that is developed, maybe not to Western standards, but we were already seeing Western healthcare systems creak under the increasing pressure of rising cases; flights home were becoming non-existent and getting home meant boarding a flight with who knows who, entering the epi-center of the disease, and going back to the homes of our parents who were in an at-risk age group; we are from two different countries and would have to split up for an indefinite amount of time.
Even though it is perceived as the poor, downtrodden continent, riding this thing out in Africa was actually the more logical choice. The number of recorded cases was still low. We were not at-risk for having already contracted the virus. The other point might be a bit difficult for people who have never been here to understand but it is this: Africans know their healthcare systems are weak; they know that the cannot support the treatment of a widespread infection; therefore, the best way to combat the disease is to prevent it from spreading in the first place.
African countries were quick on the quarantine procedures and they were quick to close their borders. Cote D’Ivoire had fewer than 20 suspected cases when they closed their land and air borders. Currently, the continent as a whole still only has 2046 reported cases but 16 countries have completely closed their borders. Most others have strict quarantine regulations in place, have banned travelers from specific countries with a high number of cases or have implemented some form of lockdown within the countries themselves. Many have a combination of efforts in place to curb the spread of the disease.
While a big problem was still the issue of cases going unreported, we knew we could ride this out in Cote D’Ivoire or Ghana. We just had to get there.