To try to control the Ebola epidemic spreading through West Africa, Liberia has quarantined remote villages at the epicenter of the virus, evoking the “plague villages” of medieval Europe that were shut off from the outside world.
With few food and medical supplies getting in, many abandoned villagers face a stark choice: stay where they are and risk death or skip quarantine, spreading the infection further in a country ill-equipped to cope.
In Boya, in northern Liberia’s Lofa County, Joseph Gbembo, who caught Ebola and survived, says he is struggling to raise 10 children under five years old and support five widows after nine members of his family were killed by the virus.
Fearful of catching Ebola themselves, the 30-year-old’s neighbors refuse to speak with him and blame him for bringing the virus to the village.
“I am lonely,” he said. “Nobody will talk to me and people run away from me.” He says he has received no food or health care for the children and no help from government officials.
Aid workers say that if support does not arrive soon, locals in villages like Boya, where the undergrowth is already spreading among the houses, will simply disappear down jungle footpaths.
“If sufficient medication, food and water are not in place, the community will force their way out to fetch food and this could lead to further spread of the virus,” said Tarnue Karbbar, a worker for charity Plan International based in Lofa County.
Ebola has killed at least 1,145 people in four African nations, but in the week through to August 13, Lofa county recorded more new cases than anywhere else – 124 new cases of Ebola and 60 deaths.
The World Health Organization and Liberian officials have warned that, with little access by healthcare workers to the remote areas hidden deep in rugged jungle zones, the actual toll may be far higher.
In the ramshackle coastal capital Monrovia, which still bears the scars of the brutal 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, officials say controlling the situation in Lofa is crucial to overcoming the country’s biggest crisis since the conflict.
With her country under threat, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has imposed emergency measures including the community quarantine and a “cordon sanitaire” — a system of medical roadblocks to prevent the infection reaching cities, widely used against the Black Death in Medieval times.
Troops have been deployed under operation “White Shield” to stop people from abandoning homes and infecting others in a country where the majority of cases remain at large, either because clinics are full or because they are scared of hospitals regarded as ‘death traps’.
A crowd attacked a makeshift Ebola quarantine center in Monrovia on Saturday, throwing stones and looting equipment and food, and, according to one health worker, removing patients from the building.
“There has to be concern that people in quarantined areas are left to fend for themselves,” said Mike Noyes, head of humanitarian response at ActionAid UK. “Who is going to be the police officer who goes to these places? There’s a risk that these places become plague villages.”
Aid workers say the virus reminds them of the forces roaming Liberia during the civil war, making it a byword for brutality.
“It was like the war. It was so desolate,” said Adolphus Scott, a worker for U.N. child agency UNICEF describing Zango Town in the jungles of northern Liberia, where most of the 2,000 residents had either died of Ebola or fled.
Elderly people sat in the doorways of their homes, gazing at a dirt street empty but for a few roaming goats and skinny chickens, he said. “Ebola is like a guerrilla army marauding the country.”
HEALTHY AT RISK
The Ebola virus, never previously detected in poverty-racked West Africa, is carried by jungle mammals like fruit bats. It is thought to have been transmitted to the human population via bush meat as early as December in remote southeastern Guinea.
Initial symptoms like fever and muscular pains are difficult to distinguish from other tropical illnesses such as malaria, meaning the outbreak was not detected til March. By the late stages of the disease, victims are at their most contagious, bleeding from eyes and ears, with the virus pouring out of them.