I watched a man die and could not do anything about it

This month, Liberia was declared free of Ebola transmission in the human population for the second time this year. As Liberians celebrated their latest victory against Ebola, I shared their feeling of elation.

Yet, I was unable to get the image of one death in particular out of my mind. It was from a day in 2014, almost one year ago.

I remember the day well. It was at the height of Liberia’s notoriously heavy rainy season, and the peak of the Ebola outbreak. The sky was grey, and the air hung heavy with moisture from the most recent rain storm. I was returning from Liberia’s main airport with my colleague, where we had photographed the arrival of a UNICEF-chartered aircraft which had brought lifesaving supplies.

In September 2014, 150 adolescent girls trained by UNICEF and partners marched across West Point community in Monrovia to raise awareness about Ebola.
© UNICEF/UNI171713/GriggersIn September 2014, 150 adolescent girls trained by UNICEF and partners marched across West Point community in Monrovia to raise awareness about Ebola.

On the journey back to the office, we decided to make a stop at an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) to see how all of the supplies UNICEF had provided were supporting the treatment of Ebola patients.

Standing a few yards away from the triage area of the treatment unit, just outside the capital Monrovia, I watched as healthcare workers in heavy protective gear carried a man out of a bright yellow taxi, lay him gingerly on a bed in a tent, and then rushed around frantically trying everything they could to save his life. I saw no movement from the man at all, but I knew that he had died when the frantic activity stopped and the shoulders of the health workers sagged.

All of this happened a short distance from where I stood.

There was nothing I could do. I helplessly looked on as the man’s wife wailed with heart-wrenching sobs, and their daughter almost collapsed in grief. I could not approach the family or comfort them in this moment of intense grief. The harsh reality was that they too could potentially have been infected, and could, in turn, infect me. Health workers in white personal protection suits used a chlorine and water mix to spray down the taxi that had brought the suspected Ebola victim to the ETU.

I was devastated. Liberia has been my home since 2008. I was here when the first case of Ebola was detected in March 2014.

The scene that was playing out in front of me was sadly a regular occurrence during the worst of the Ebola outbreak. Each day, dozens of people arrived in similar taxis, and even on the back of wheelbarrows, seeking treatment for a disease that was ravaging their families and communities. Many also died at home, on the journey to these health facilities, or while waiting outside for a vacant bed.

Some 3,000 people died of Ebola in Liberia in 2014 and 2015, according to Government data.

Mariama. an Ebola survivor, stands inside a newly-built Ebola treatment unit (ETU) in Monrovia, in November 2014.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2014-3045/NesbittMariama, an Ebola survivor, stands inside a newly-built Ebola treatment unit (ETU) in Monrovia, in November 2014.

But Liberia managed to beat back the virus and its spread, mainly through community action and massive response efforts by the Government and numerous partners, including UNICEF. On 9 May 2015, Liberia was declared free of Ebola transmission, but reported a few cases in June and July 2015. A rapid response resulted in the spread of Ebola being quickly contained, patients treated, and the dead being buried according to strict safety protocols.

I often think about the family I saw at the ETU one year ago. In the fog of working 20-hour days during the Ebola outbreak, I never did find out what happened to them. I hope they survived and are well.

It has been a tough time for the people of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the most severely affected countries in the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Hopefully, Ebola is now gone for good from Liberia. And, hopefully, Guinea and Sierra Leone will soon also be able to get to zero cases.

Rukshan Ratnam is a Communication Specialist at UNICEF Liberia.

UNICEF provided urgently needed medical supplies to treat Ebola patients and reactivate health services, including providing tents, beds, chlorine and medical supplies, and co-led efforts by the Government to develop messages and raise awareness on how people could stop the spread of Ebola. It also put in place water, sanitation and hygiene systems at ETUs. UNICEF also supported the training and equipping of vaccinators to ensure routine immunization continued; established interim care centers for children who were direct contacts of Ebola patients and developed protocols for their care; supported the training and deployment of social workers and mental technicians to help identify families of separated or orphaned children and reunite them; and provided psychosocial support, as well as  school infection prevention and control kits to help reduce the likelihood of Ebola transmission in schools when they reopened in February 2015.

For more information on UNICEF’s response to the Ebola outbreak:


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