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Interview with Zekar L. Payweyne II: “I Am A Liberian, Not A Virus”

By Taryana Odayar.

It isn’t everyday that you come across a youth activist who is so passionate about his cause that he is willing to found an NGO, create a movement against electoral violence, and organize a national peace march, to bring about change in his country, Liberia. Apart from being a passionate advocate for the empowerment of African youth, Zekar is the Executive Director of the NGO ‘Action Oriented Minds’ (AOM) in Liberia, as well as the Chairman of the Movement Against Violence (MAV) and the Movement Against Electoral Violence, whose members have acted as local and international observers during Liberian and Sierra Leone elections. Currently the National Youth Chairman of the Coalition of Women, Youth and Students for Sustained Peace; which comprises over 50 youth organizations in Liberia, Zekar also organized a peace march under the theme, “PEACE IS IN OUR HANDS.”This week, although we were on two different continents, I had the privilege of interviewing him about the prevalent Ebola crisis in Liberia.

Zekar.

Ebola is the most deadly virus in the world. How is it contracted and how does it spread? What are the precautions that should be taken to reduce the spread of the virus?

Ebola is spread primarily through direct contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person or dead body as well as eating bush meat. The virus can only be transmitted if the person is actually sick and showing signs and symptoms like vomiting, high fever, severe headache, diarrhoea, etc.

Ebola is most likely to kill an entire family because members of a household usually share bathrooms, spoons, cups and other things and can easily come into contact with the bodily fluid of an infected family member. Moreover, many people provide home treatment for sick family members before contacting a hospital or clinic. This happened to the family next door; the virus wiped out almost the entire family. The mother contracted the virus and then her husband, followed by her oldest son, her daughter and finally a boy who lived with them and none of them survived. Several other families were wiped out completely and some friends were also killed by the virus.
I would say the best preventive measure is to avoid contact with sick people, especially those showing the signs and symptoms of the virus. Secondly, avoid shaking hands and wash your hands several times a day with chlorinated water or use hand sanitizer.

What is the current situation in Liberia, and is it improving? What is the situation like in West Africa and other parts of the world?

Liberia has reported the highest number of suspected and confirmed cases (6,878) and deaths (2,812) of the Ebola infected countries. Thankfully, the situation has greatly improved and the number of new cases are said to have decreased significantly. The outbreak originated from our neighbouring country, Guinea, and spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. These three countries are the most affected by the Ebola pandemic. The outbreak is prevalent in rural Guinea and Sierra Leone, while in Liberia the majority of cases have been reported in the urban areas. Nigeria also reported 20 cases and 8 deaths, Mali 4 cases and 3 deaths, and Senegal 1 case, no deaths.

Outside of Africa, the first case reported was in Spain where a nursing assistant contracted the virus from treating an infected person evacuated from Sierra Leone. The infected person died, but the lady was declared Ebola free. Also an infected Catholic brother was previously evacuated from Liberia to Spain but he also died. There have also been 4 cases in the United States with one death. The victim Thomas Eric Duncan had come into contact with an infected lady in Liberia before travelling to the USA where he fell ill, and he later passed on at the Dallas Hospital in Texas.

What are the areas in Liberia that were hit the hardest by the virus?

The capital city Monrovia was terribly affected by the virus. Other places are Lofa County where the first case was reported, and Bomi, Nambi and Margibi Counties.

On August 6th, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf declared a 90-day State of Emergency, instating emergency measures such as quarantines on the worst-affected communities to repress the epidemic. Have these measures helped significantly?

Yes, since the declaration of the State of Emergency there have been significant improvements. It was very important for the government to take tough measures like the quarantine because it was very essential in limiting the transmission of the virus from one township to another. The President has lifted the State of Emergency and extended the curfew to 12pm. Let me add that the civil society organizations as well as International partners have played a major role in the reduction of new cases in Liberia. Liberia still remains at risk because the situation in neighbouring Sierra Leone hasn’t improved much.

Liberia has established a national task force, led by the President and supported by the United Nations and other partners, to coordinate the response efforts to the crisis. What is the progress so far?

The national task force with the support of the United Nations and other international and local partners have done a great job in combating the spread of the virus and reducing new cases. According to the World Health Organization, the various Ebola treatment centres in the country are being emptied rapidly because they are not receiving new cases at these centres. The mortality rate of the virus has also decreased because people are now reporting for early treatment as soon as they start to experience the symptoms of the virus. Receiving early treatment can greatly increase a person’s chance of survival.

What are the other measures that the Liberian government has taken to curb the spread of the virus?

The government ordered that everyone travelling into and out of Liberia should go through a screening process which includes a temperature test. This temperature test is also required for entry into all public facilities. All offices, schools, businesses as well as homes were mandated to have hand washing stations. Furthermore, a 9pm – 6am curfew was also imposed and public gatherings excluding religious functions were suspended. The number of people travelling per vehicle was also reduced and even religious places like churches were asked to reduce the number of people sitting in a pew.

What are the measures AOM has taken to curb the spread of the virus?

Most organizations, including AOM, have been focused on sensitizing the citizens on how to take preventive measures. We initiated outreach programs in the various communities to ensure that people receive adequate information on what the virus is, how it is spread and what to do if they suspected that someone had come down with the virus. We donated buckets and other materials like soap, Clorox, bleach and chlorine to help in the hand washing routine.

Have these measures been effective? What were some of the challenges faced by the government and AOM and were you able to overcome them?

Definitely these methods have been effective because the first problem we had in Liberia was denial. Many people did not believe that Ebola was in Liberia, which contributed to the rapid spread of the virus. Creating the awareness and educating people on how to stay safe was essential to reducing the number of cases. For us, our major problem was at first when people thought that we were implementing government propaganda, but with consistency and the increased numbers of reported cases and deaths, people started to pay more attention to these messages. At times the government was resisted, especially in some violence-prone communities, and some people even got severely injured when the police tried to enforce the quarantine. Another problem for the government was that families of people who had died from Ebola were refusing to turn the bodies over to the government. However, when the State of Emergency was declared the government could exercise more absolute powers and these resistances reduced.

Have the UN bodies, Doctors Without Borders, the WHO and other organizations responded well to the situation?

Yes, I think they have done a magnificent job because the government lacks the capacity to independently combat the virus. Therefore, much of the success thus far must be accredited to these international organizations. They have risked their lives and worked tirelessly to ensure that the situation in Liberia improves. However, I believe that they should have reacted promptly from the onset of the outbreak.

What are the sentiments of the Liberian people towards the deadly viral outbreak? Are they worried, afraid? Who do they look to for help and support?

Of course many people are very worried and terrified now especially with the loss of close relatives and friends. Liberians are usually friendly and lively people, but since the outbreak things are not the same. The cultural greetings of handshaking have been abandoned and people are even afraid to move from place to place. The most disheartening thing is that Liberians are being stigmatized globally. The primary reason is because two Liberians, Patrick Sawyer and Thomas Eric Duncan took the virus to Nigeria and the USA. People should know that the virus didn’t originate in Liberia, but that it started from another country and was brought into Liberia, and that even then the Liberians didn’t stigmatize anyone. A global campaign titled “I AM A LIBERIAN, NOT A VIRUS,” was started by some Liberians to help create awareness against the stigmatization of Liberians worldwide.

What are the long term socio-economic implications of the Ebola outbreak for Liberia?

We will definitely have a shortage of medical practitioners after the outbreak because a significant number of doctors and nurses died from the virus. Another issue is that since the outbreak of the virus, all academic institutions were shut down, some businesses were closed, other government projects were halted; the country has been at a standstill. The outbreak is already having a negative impact on the country’s economy but I do believe that once everything is over we will be able to recover rapidly. If I could take anything positive out of this situation it would be that the outbreak exposed the major lapses in the health sector. There is a need for a major reform in the health sector.

What does the path to recovery for Liberia look like?

This outbreak has shown us how fragile our country is, and I believe that people should put aside their differences and personal interests so that we can collectively work to ensure that the country is back on track to economic recovery. I can sit here and give suggestions, but I believe that the government should set up a committee, organize a conference, summit or whatever they would call it, but the major thing for me is that every sector of the society needs to be a part of this. This committee should look at the lapses we had when combating the virus and proffer recommendations going forward. This committee can also develop a draft national reform of all sectors affected by the virus. I think it would be a better way to contribute ideas rather than just individually making random suggestions.

What do you think of the media’s coverage of the Ebola outbreak?

The media coverage generally has been excellent and responsible. Every media institution has been very instrumental in ensuring proper information dissemination. I really hope to see this kind of responsible media coverage after this situation. The media can sometimes be very divisive but I was really impressed by the general performance.

Has the rest of the world responded positively to Liberia’s calls for international aid?

Many countries have been very supportive and I must commend those who have come to our aid. Things are improving now so there is not too much concern, however, there can never be too much help especially since our country is really struggling to recover from the crisis that devastated our infrastructure and economy. My only regret is that most of the medical facilities being constructed are temporary, which means we will lose them afterwards.

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