After Ebola, what then?

Two years later, Liberians find healing from Ebola’s emotional scars. 

In January 2016, the World Health Organization announced that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was over. In reality, the crisis is far from over for many who were caught up in the worst of it. How do you carry on when you alone survived out of 25 family members? Or when you lost your fiance, your baby, your parents and six of your seven sisters? Or when you can’t even return to your own house because the sorrow is overwhelming? How do you carry on when you lost your wife and four sons and people in your community accuse you of purposely killing them with the disease?

These are some of the stories people tell when they come to the Ebola Survivors’ Clinic at ELWA Hospital. Their emotional pain is compounded by ongoing physical side effects of Ebola: cloudy or obstructed vision, swelling in their joints, deafness, numbness in their legs or general muscle weakness. These symptoms have made it difficult for some to return to their jobs, schools, or market businesses.

It has been well over a year since most of the survivors tested negative for Ebola and yet, they are only now realizing their health problems are not resolving. Thankfully, SIM donors have made it possible for these survivors to receive medical care free of charge. As the worst of the epidemic subsided, the Evangelical Church of Liberia (ECOL) leaders began reporting the emotional impact in their communities. As a result, friends of SIM Liberia started  a programme to provide psychological and spiritual healing.

Finding emotional healing

post-ebola signThe Ebola epidemic was just the latest crisis following the years of civil war that shook the nation from 1989-2003. With this backdrop of grief, ECOL and SIM worked with The American Bible Society to adapt their programme, Healing the Wounds of Trauma, for the Liberian context.

In July 2015, five trainers came to Liberia to lead the inaugural Trauma Healing Workshops, including SIM missionary Nancy Writebol, a survivor of Ebola herself. Eighty Liberians in all participated, including spiritual leaders from ECOL churches, ELWA ministries, Samaritan’s Purse and other ministries. Together they learned to facilitate similar groups in their churches and communities.

All patients in the Ebola Survivors’ Clinic are offered the opportunity to attend a trauma healing group for free. There is also a growing awareness of the trauma experienced by healthcare workers who cared for Ebola patients in the Treatment Units, and others who served in some of the most difficult roles during the crisis. Pastor Jeremiah Kollie finds that the lessons provide an opportunity for men to talk openly about their emotions in a way he has never seen before. They now understand that painful emotions do not mean they lack faith. Other participants now understand how to talk to people about the grief process, resolving not to give up and die in the “village of anger”, instead leaving it behind so they might reach the “village of hope.”

To expand the scope of the workshops, 10 radio dramas set in a Liberian context were created and broadcast on ELWA radio.

The Ebola Erasers

One group of workers of the Ebola crisis were perhaps the most stigmatized – the men who cremated the bodies of Ebola victims. Cremation is anathema in Liberian culture: the dead body of a family member is treated respectfully and buried with honour. But at the height of the crisis, quickly removing the Ebola-infected bodies of the deceased from their community was needed to end the epidemic. The government ordered the bodies to be burned.

Subsequently, the workers assigned to this task have been ostracized from their homes and communities, rejected by their families and even spouses, and completely abandoned by those who ordered them to carry out this culturally onerous task. ECOL and SIM leaders invited them to share a meal with the pastors and missionaries at ELWA. Some said through tears that this was one of only a few times anyone had come close to them, or was willing to share food with them post-Ebola. They expressed a desire to take part in a trauma healing workshop and this counseling is ongoing.

by Debbie Sacra
10 May 2016