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Perspective | Magazine

Lessons from an Ebola survivor: Here’s what we can do about the coronavirus

Covid-19 isn’t “just a flu.” It’s also not the apocalypse.

A health worker in Sierra Leone in 2014 sprayed a colleague with disinfectant after working inside a morgue where people were suspected of dying from the Ebola virus.
A health worker in Sierra Leone in 2014 sprayed a colleague with disinfectant after working inside a morgue where people were suspected of dying from the Ebola virus.Tanya Bindra/Associated Press

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In fall 2014, I was pacing outside of an Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia, Liberia, when a nurse standing nearby called out to me. “You scared?” she asked, noticing the pensive look on my face. “Yes, very,” I replied. She flashed a grim smile and said, “When you scared, that’s when you get it.”

Two weeks later I was on an airlift, en route to the University of Nebraska Medical Center where I was quarantined and treated after being the only Western journalist to contract the Ebola virus. It took another week for doctors to tell me they thought I was going to live, and 10 days more before I could go home to Providence.

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The coronavirus is nowhere near as deadly as Ebola, which killed around 40 percent of those who contracted it, as opposed to the 3 percent rate frequently cited for Covid-19 (it’s too early to make accurate estimates). But while the past few weeks have been activating some unpleasant memories, they’ve also been reminding me of some of the lessons we learned during the Ebola outbreak both here and in Liberia. As the Covid-19 pandemic expands its disruption of our lives in the United States, it’s worth reflecting so we can avoid making the same mistakes twice.

Of course, neither disease cares whether you are scared. There is no metaphysical trick to keeping yourself safe outside of listening to the advice of epidemiologists and scientists and following their recommended precautions. (If you’re a journalist, interviewing very sick people at hospitals will probably raise your risk, word to the wise.)

But fear is its own kind of virus, and its effects can also be deadly. Calling the coronavirus “just a flu” or dismissing the need to take precautions isn’t helpful, but neither is the assumption that we are on a crash course toward the apocalypse. During the peak of the Ebola crisis, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that as many as a million and a half people could contract the disease in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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By the end of the outbreak a year and a half later, the actual number was around 25,000.

The problem with panic is that it can cloud our judgment and even get people hurt. This is personal to me. Before announcing his candidacy, Donald Trump tweeted repeatedly that Ebola patients shouldn’t be airlifted for treatment in the United States. If the federal government had shared his view, I might be dead now.

It’s easy to forget, but the national mood in the United States during Ebola at times bordered on outright hysteria, with breathless ruminations about the potential for immigrants to bring the virus in through our southern borders, needless quarantines placed onto health workers who weren’t symptomatic, and widespread stigma against people from West Africa, where the outbreak originated.

The coronavirus is already affecting life in America far more than Ebola ever did. The temptation to react to every piece of news with terror and worst-case thinking can be overwhelming. But we won’t be able to accurately assess the danger we and our loved ones do face or hear what health responders need from us right now if we lose a cool head.

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If you’re reading this and thinking, Someone who contracted Ebola in 2014 probably isn’t the best person to take safety advice from during a viral outbreak, I say to you: Fair enough. Fortunately, there are people you can listen to who are far more qualified than me and will have advice you can, and should, trust: the experts.

In 2014, infectious disease specialists were adamant that health care workers who bravely volunteered in West Africa didn’t need to be quarantined upon their return unless they became symptomatic. The respective governors of New York and New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, both ignored that advice and imposed harsh quarantine policies on people who’d treated Ebola patients. Those policies inflamed the public’s anxiety and made it harder for health care workers to do temporary stints overseas right when their help was most needed.

A charged presidential election is not an ideal time to be experiencing a pandemic, and the coronavirus is sure to become even more politicized than it already has been. Now would be a good time to begin looking for experts trained in dealing with infectious disease outbreaks, and start listening to their advice rather than relying on political commentary or our gut feelings.

Liberia also has valuable lessons for us in how we approach outbreaks in vulnerable communities. Initially, quarantines were imposed with a heavy hand there, raising mistrust and souring the relationship between responders and the people they were trying to protect. Eventually, health authorities shifted to a model that brought members of those communities to the table as partners, even hiring some to do door-to-door case tracking so their frightened neighbors would see familiar faces.

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The results of this change were profound. Soon after it was implemented in the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Monrovia, the number of new cases began to decline.

As the coronavirus spreads in the United States — which it will — it is likely that some of the communities that are affected will be among our most vulnerable. Members of immigrant communities may fear the consequences of interacting with the health care system, and people living with financial precarity are likely to go to work out of sheer necessity, even when they become symptomatic.

What we know from Liberia is that effective community response strategies require an approach rooted in empathy and respect. This is perhaps the single most important lesson of the Liberian response, and I hope we will not have to relearn it here the hard way.

Viral outbreaks are frightening, but in a sense they also provide us with an opportunity. When we take precautions or try to hold our minds steady, we aren’t just doing ourselves a favor, we are acting compassionately toward our neighbors and loved ones. Civic generosity and solidarity are vehicles that will get us to the other side of this unsettling time as fast as possible.

And get to the other side we will. Every time I return to Liberia, I pass by the field hospital where I was treated before being evacuated. The once-white tents are now tattered, brown, and mostly unused, and I always have the same thought when I see them: Did that really happen?

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Many will suffer before this all comes to an end. We owe it to them and one another to be as responsible and kind as we can, and to act in a way we will be proud of once it does.

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Ashoka Mukpo is a journalist at the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2014, the-then Providence resident contracted the Ebola virus while freelancing in Liberia. Send comments to magazine@globe.com