By: Helene Cooper
It is hard enough to push away family and friends, shunning an embrace or even a shake of the hand to protect yourself from Ebola. But imagine trying not to touch your 2-year-old daughter when she is feverish, vomiting blood and in pain.
Precious Diggs, 33, had heard all the warnings from public health workers here in Liberia. But when her toddler, Rebecca, started “toileting and vomiting”, there was no way she was not going to pick her up. “Na mind, baby,” Diggs whispered in her baby’s ear. “I beg you, na mind.”
Here in the heart of the worst Ebola outbreak in history, the question of whether to touch a stranger has only one answer: you don’t. But even in more intimate circles, in families and among lifelong friends, Liberians are starting to pull away from one another.
Liberia used to be a tactile place. Everybody kissed friends, strangers and cousins, regardless of whether people met every day or had not seen one another in 20 years. The double-cheek kiss was the standard greeting. People often held hands while singing hymns at church, and after services sometimes took up to an hour to disperse, going systematically from cheek to cheek. At parties, new arrivals took the hand of each seated guest as they bent down to kiss and chat.
That’s all gone now. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids: vomit, blood, faeces, tears, saliva and sweat. Close contact has become taboo.
The Liberian government has decreed that taxis — which used to cram up to eight people — take just three people in the back seat. Sylvester Vagn, 40, said that even with only two people sharing the taxi with him, he jams his body against the door now. Whichever arm is closest to his fellow passengers, he places it across his body and practically out the window. “And I bring jacket.”
Clara K Mallah, 27, wears long sleeves, pulling them over her hands whenever her 3-year-old niece comes running up to her. She makes an exception only for her 52-year-old mother, a diabetic amputee who never leaves the house. “If my mom could walk,” she said, “I wouldn’t touch her.”
Those family ties expose the fragility of the belief that you can completely protect yourself from Ebola by keeping your hands to yourself. Can you really not touch an ailing mother?
When Ephraim Dunbar, 37, got a phone call in late August that his mother had taken ill, he rushed to her house in Dolos Town, the enclave near Harbel where dozens of people have succumbed to Ebola. He found her in bed, vomiting blood. He did his best not to touch her. But as she grew worse, he gave her milk, and tried to soothe her. His skin touched hers. His mother died the next day.
Just after his mother’s funeral, Dunbar got fever. For 15 days, he fought Ebola. When he got out of hospital, he found out that four of his sisters, his brother, his father, his aunt, his uncle and his two nephews had died.
Dunbar said he would do nothing different. “That’s my ma,” he said, “that she the one born me.”
Levy Zeopuegar’s Achilles heel was his oldest sister, Neconie — “one father, one mother”, he described her in the Liberian way of distinguishing full siblings in a country where half brothers or half sisters are common.
When Neconie got sick, her brother chartered a car to take her to the hospital and climbed in with her.
Neconie died. Her husband, also in the car, died. Zeopuegar almost died as well. “You have to understand,” he tried to explain. “You will see your son or daughter sick in bed and say, ‘I not touching her?’. That is impossible.”
And yet, that is what Liberians must do to combat the virus. Many people say they have not felt the warmth of human skin in months. Many do not shake hands, caress, or hug.
But some still do. So when Rebecca got sick, Precious Diggs picked her baby up. Rebecca died days later. She passed Ebola on to her mom. Weeks later, Diggs sat in front of the discharge tent with others, waiting to begin new and starkly different lives.