Everyone's Afraid To Touch Each Other Now: An Ebola Nurse Speaks Out

Photo: Kieran Kesner/REX USA.
This morning, TIME gave its 2014 Person of the Year to a group: Ebola fighters. The award honors the individuals who answered the call and went to help fight the outbreak in West Africa — from the doctors and nurses who worked to contain and treat the epidemic to the ambulance attendants, burial parties, and caregivers who put themselves at risk to stop the disease from spreading further.
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That battle is far from over. Ebola continues to spread in Africa, where more than 6,000 people have died. Liberia has been hit the hardest — more than 3,000 people have died there. While the rate of infection has slowed since the high point in September, 12 new cases are reported every day, and the risks are far from over.
We spoke with Alice Johnson, a nurse from Liberia who has spent the last four years working for a community health organization called Last Minute Mile. She talked to us about how daily life has changed and how health workers are able to treat the sick and spread education, knowing that all the while they’re at high risk for contracting the disease themselves.
We spoke with Alice on October 24, 2014, and our conversation has been edited and condensed.
How has everyday life changed since the outbreak?
"It feels very different here. Since the outbreak, everything has changed. You have a different sense of how we are living in this country. Under ordinary circumstances, it is a normal thing that when you see your friend, you embrace him, or take someone's hand as you are talking to him. If someone in your family or your friend is sick, it's normal to go see them, to see how they are.
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"Now, no one does those things. If you are sick — if you mention that you have been sick — no one wants to be around you, no one shows concern. People do not come to visit. Now, they are more likely to ask you about your travel history."
Photo: Kieran Kesner/REX USA.
What are some the challenges you and other aid workers face in fighting the disease?
"Taking sick people and putting them in a treatment center is not how you fight this disease. We need to reinforce preventative measures and get people involved in this fight on the community level. There is no system to fight ebola; they have built a lot of treatment centers, but right now people prefer staying at home, and not dying in the centers. That's because we haven't done the kind of one-on-one work that we need, on the community level, to talk them through it.
"We have a national ebola task force, but it has no linkage to the community. On a national level, they don't know what's going on day-to-day in the remote communities in Liberia. And, the Liberian government is not doing anything, or at least anything that meets our expectations. There isn’t even a road system. If someone is infected where I am working, we are 48 hours away from a treatment center, and our people are dying."
What more can the international aid community do to help?
"We don't have the equipment we need. People are getting sick from treating the sick. There's not enough education, there's not enough protective equipment, and there's not enough staff. In the communities where Ebola is really raging, many of our colleagues have died because they were giving care — because they didn't have the equipment they needed. They're taking care of the sick, and they're overworked, and then they are also infected.
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"Personally, I have been very afraid for my health and my safety, but I am less afraid than many because I am educated about how the disease spreads, and I have the correct equipment. With education and equipment, you do not need to be afraid."
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