Tona, my youngest son, just turned two. I couldn’t be with him on his special day; I couldn’t hold him, play with him or do any of the things dads are supposed to do the day their babies turn two.
Instead, I spent the day thousands of miles away, at an interim care centre for children in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, surrounded by several children who had been in direct contact with an Ebola patient recently – many of them, having recently lost a parent or caregiver.
Two children at the centre showed symptoms of Ebola the morning of my visit. I was asked to keep a distance from the children to reduce the risks of infection. I never imagined how difficult and frustrating this ‘no- touch’ policy would be in practice. Forget the handshaking. No hug. No group photo. I even began to think twice about sitting on a chair!
Ebola hits these children twice. First, it takes their parents away, then it subjects them to stigma, rejection and even abuse. They do not have the simple comfort, care and attention a child needs in times of grief. Sometimes their own relatives are too scared to take them back. Fear of contagion is getting stronger than family ties.
For these children orphaned by Ebola, family unity first. The preferred option is always to reunite the child with other family members who are able and willing to take him or her into their care. But with the strong stigma attached to these children, this is sometimes not possible; in fact, increasingly so.
As an alternative arrangement, two weeks ago, the government of Liberia set up the first interim care centre in the outskirts of Monrovia, with support from UNICEF and Child Fund. About 14 children orphaned by Ebola, from 8 months to 17 years old, who had nowhere else to go, are temporarily being cared for by specially-trained social workers.
Throughout their stay at the centre, all children are monitored regularly for any symptom, even the slightest of fevers. For the next 21 days – the incubation period for the virus – these children are considered at risk of possibly becoming ill themselves. Because of this, no matter how healthy they may look, they are children whom no one can touch. No one, that is, except for those who have survived Ebola.
Ebola survivors develop an immunity to the disease and can be a great asset. But because being a survivor doesn’t necessarily make a good social worker; survivors need to be vetted and trained. UNICEF has trained 20 Ebola survivors on how to provide care and support to children going through the double trauma of losing loved ones, and who feel shunned. In total, 50 survivors will be involved in running interim care centres, more of which will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
“When they told me I had Ebola, I thought I was going to die,” remembers Decontee Davies, 23-year-old survivor who was trained by UNICEF last week. “My mother and brothers could not even go to the market to buy food. No one took the money they had because I had Ebola. I don’t want these children to go through the same suffering. I don’t want to see them go hungry because they have no mother to feed them and nobody wants to give them food. When they say they want to see their brothers and sisters, we cannot let them. It’s hard. That is why I work here. To help these children.”
Children often run to greet visitors and hold their hands; but here at the centre, for the first time in my life, I had to refrain from establishing any physical contact and showing the most natural sign of human compassion. I never felt so close, yet so far from a child at the same time. It is an awful and awkward feeling.
When you are two metres away from the person you are talking to, establishing a connection is much more challenging. But I try. We start talking about football, our favourite food and games. Shirley, an 11-year-old girl who arrived seven days ago with her two brothers, aged 5 and 9, smiles and opens up. “My mother and father died. All this because of Ebola,” she says Shirley.
“Here we play, eat, take showers and sleep. I want to go home. I know it’s not possible right now. I don’t know if people still want me where I lived before. I know I have to stay here. At least I am with my brothers. I am the only person they have left.”
Suddenly, in the course of the conversation, one of the children – a boy named Daniel – feels more confident and gets closer to me. Too close. He must be 2 or 3. I stop talking and subtly take a step back. The child notices. My eyes betray the fear I feel inside.
Neither the armed rebels in the Central African Republic nor the aftershocks of the earthquake in Haiti scared me as much as I was of that child touching me. I work for UNICEF and I was petrified by a vulnerable child. It takes me a few seconds to compose myself. In his eyes, I see no fear. I can read his mind telling me “I am not the virus; I am not your enemy”. He reassures me. My fear is still there, but dominated.
Fortunately for these children, survivors like Decontee are able to provide that human connection – a hug, a pat on the back, a reassuring touch that reminds them they are not alone. UNICEF is working with the Government of Liberia to have at least one interim care centre operating in each of the five worst-affected counties across the country, so that these children have a safe space to go and receive the care and support they need. Each centre will be staffed by survivors trained as social workers, who can provide the hugs that I so longed to give, but which my own fears denied.
Laurent Duvillier is Regional Communication Specialist for UNICEF, based in Dakar. He is presently on mission in Liberia, one of the epicentres of the present outbreak of Ebola.
A version of this post originally appeared in The Guardian on 24 October 2014.