Battling Ebola’s stigma: Stories from the field

A Toronto Star reporter, MSF worker, Sierra Leonean journalist and the British High Commissioner to Ghana share their insights.
By: /
November 5, 2014

Canada is facing criticism at home and abroad this week over its recent announcement that it will not issue visas to citizens of West African nations battling Ebola. A World Health Organization representative told the Globe and Mail Tuesday that “people will find a way to travel. And the consequence to a country might be even worse than not having had a travel ban.”

The implication of the ban is that those from these countries pose a risk to Canadians, which law professor Steven Hoffman pointedly refuted in the Toronto Star on Monday.

But even before the visa announcement, residents of and visitors to Ebola-affected countries were already facing an uphill struggle not only against a virus that has killed nearly 5,000 people but against the spreading stigma that discriminates against those in the region. Upon returning home, some humanitarian aid workers are being criticized; friends are keeping their distance from journalists returning from the field; and nationals from those countries are viewed as suspected carriers of the virus even beyond the 21-day incubation period.

Here are four stories from those who are or have been in the region. Their anecdotes highlight the impact of the stigma and fear (far more widespread than the virus itself), as it becomes clear such discrimination — in the form of travel bans and strict quarantine rules — is hindering the mobilization of a larger aid effort needed. Combating these fears will also be crucial for the recovery and stability of the region on the whole, going forward.

Amara Bangura, Sierra Leonean journalist

After studying in Canada as a Journalists for Human Rights Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, Bangura returned to Sierra Leone in May.

“It was a tough moment to be home in the middle of the Ebola crisis, but I joined my colleagues in in the fight,” he said, recalling his return. “Because the outbreak was very new to every Sierra Leonean, including doctors, not much was known about it. In fact, many Sierra Leonean denied the existence of the Ebola until when some of their close relatives begin to die of the very disease. Many people lost their lives as a result of the persistent denial and myths about Ebola.”

Bangura relocated to the UK in early October but felt discriminated by landlords who refused to rent to someone from the region. One landlord wrote, in an email shared with OpenCanada, “given that the world is about to probably experience an Ebola pandemic we have decided not to accept anyone that has been anywhere near the Ebola outbreaks [within] the last 2 months or is likely to visit those areas in the near future. Sorry.”

Bangura has since found accommodations, however “the misconceptions are still there,” he said.

Jennifer Yang, Global Health Reporter for the Toronto Star

Yang has been covering the Ebola outbreak for the Toronto Star for several months, and visited Sierra Leone for two weeks in August.

Covering the crisis was, she said, the first time any assignment has moved her to tears:

“The thing that sticks with me the most, the thing that made me tear up while I was there…was the Sierra Leoneans I met who are basically volunteering because they are getting paid next to nothing to do ridiculously dangerous work. We’re talking seven days a week. People who are away from their families, and many have seen their friends and colleagues die already… It’s unbelievable the level of spirit and dedication they were expressing to me. It was just really moving — How strongly they wanted to defend their people and help their country come out of this crisis.”

Yang in Sierra Leone (Courtesy of Jennifer Yang)

And, despite the perception of risks, she would go back. “I still kind of regard this kind of assignment as more manageable in some ways than going into a war zone or conflict zone, where there is a lot more that you can’t plan for and a lot more randomness,” she said.

Yang consulted with several aid agencies on best practice for minimizing risks while reporting in the field and while back in Canada, however she said there were still concerns from others.  “The fact is if you are not symptomatic, you are not infectious. I felt fine… and I continued to take my temperature twice a day when I got back. But, that being said, I still wound up working from home for two weeks actually… just to minimize anyone’s discomfort.

"My general sense is that newsrooms have been a lot more reluctant [to send reporters to the region]. I think there has been at least much more ruminating whether or not to go into this part of the world right now. I think part of it is irrational, there is a fear… but it’s also right that people should think extra hard about it.

“The last thing you would want is to be the journalist who brought Ebola to Toronto and spread it in her own community back home.”

Jon Benjamin, British High Commissioner to Ghana

While life goes on in non-affected West African countries, such as Ghana, Benjamin told OpenCanada Ebola has become “like a cloud that hangs in the sky over everybody,” he said. “But underneath it — thus far because it isn’t here — normal life and business to quite a large extend is just going on.”

The UN set up its Ebola Emergency Response headquarters in Accra, Ghana, sparking local concerns that such frequent travel to affected zones might increase the risk that Ebola could enter Ghana. “In the media here you can see concerns about the perception of the risks of Ebola coming here might be higher just because of the frequency of the people flying in and out on the UN route. So the UN has taken great pains to reassure against that. But of course you’re talking about a highly professional aid operation with highly experienced people,” he said.

According to Benjamin, Ghana has not experienced any significant economic and diplomatic consequences as a result of fears of travel to and from the region — unlike Gambia, which relies on tourism — however he said reports of those cancelling visits to the region in general would likely increase if the virus continues to spread.

“Anecdotally, sure, there were people who were going to come here across the board — official, commercial and cultural — who were going to come, who have called off out of concern for Ebola. But on the other hand we are still planning ministerial visits … so it’s not clear cut.

“In Ghana, the main issue at the moment is the overall macroeconomic issue. And they are having talks with the IMF but that’s nothing to do with Ebola.

“Life goes on across the board. We have a large economic assistance program here in Ghana, we continue our normal visa service, we deal with about a thousand applications a week and are dealing with company inquiries’ about commercial issues. So there’s a lot of diplomatic normality as well, but the single, number one issue on the agenda for us particularly now that the UN is based here is Ebola.”

Martin Zinggl, former communications officer for MSF/Doctors Without Borders

Zinggl worked in Northern Liberia from August to early October for MSF Switzerland, producing reports and helping to communicate the work of MSF to local communities.

He witnessed both sadness and joy there, he said, from watching an entire community grieving, “screaming and sobbing, some ran around with their arms in the air. Some dropped to the floor and writhed in the dust,” to getting to know Mamadee, an 11-year-old Ebola patient, whose youth and energy even while in isolation impressed on him. Moments like the latter "are rare, but so full of joy that you want to keep on fighting and working. It makes you feel proud to be part of this organization and part of the work MSF is currently doing in West Africa,” he said.

While Zinggl got in contact with MSF to ask to go on a mission, he said media coverage has made some foreigners hesitant to go, “sometimes because their families don’t want them to go, sometimes because they themselves don’t feel comfortable with the fact of working in an Ebola project. The truth is that there is no ‘no risk’ of infection and this discourages,” he said.

The biggest challenge for MSF, he said, is recruitment: “[There is a] very high turnover of international staff. This means that we need a lot of human resources as the mission length is limited to four to six weeks for each assignment.”

“Out of worries and fear, my family and friends were not very happy about me going… in the beginning I even had difficulties telling my mother where exactly I was going, but it didn’t take very long for her to find out.”

Upon his return, Zinggl said he received “a lot of appreciation and acknowledgement for the work MSF was doing”, though he said he took the time and effort to talk to friends and family about the risks of infection. “The media could play a vital role here to clarify instead of spreading panic.”