Student spends summer in Ebola-stricken Liberia

The ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa is the largest-ever documented outbreak of the deadly and frightening disease. Few Americans have witnessed and fully understood the impact of the recent outbreak. However, for Leah Breen ’15, who spent her summer interning in Liberia, she experienced first-hand the multidimensional impact of the Ebola crisis.

As a government and global studies major, Breen spent the Summer of 2013 in Kashmir (a current conflict-region). Breen is particularly fascinated by stuyding post-conflict countries, state building and international development. She was interested in traveling to West Africa because she had taken classes related to the region and wanted to observe development in an African post-conflict state.
Breen traveled to Liberia independently with the help of funding from the College and found housing through a Liberian advertisement. “I lived with two Liberian women who were sisters. One was very active in ending the civil war that lasted from 1989 to 2003. She was involved with a civil society organization that pushed rebel leaders to sign a peace agreement,” Breen said.

While in Liberia, Breen worked as an intern for Building Markets, an organization that helps conflict-prone countries create jobs and sustain peace by helping to connect local businesses to domestic, regional and global supply chains.
Breen’s work revolved around communications and research, specifically interviewing Liberian business owners who use Building Markets’ services. “I was able to meet many Liberians and enter into different networks of people involved in politics. That gave me a very interesting perspective on how citizens view society and their government,” Breen said.

At first, after hearing of the Ebola outbreak, Breen was worried it would impact her ability to intern in Liberia. She discussed her concerns with Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay who specializes in the politics of African countries.

“Professor Laura Seay said that it would be extremely unlikely for me to come into contact with Ebola because then [March] the numbers were very low and Ebola was concentrated in rural regions far from the capital, where I would be living,” Breen said.

However, by the time Breen arrived in Liberia, the crisis had severely escalated. Breen arrived in Liberia on June 14th, around the time Ebola reached Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and where Breen was interning. In fact, due to the increasing spread of the virus Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea a week before she arrived in West Africa.

“I didn’t become very concerned until mid-July when I started receiving alerts from the US embassy, when major hospitals shut down, when nurses started striking and leading doctors died, when an Ebola victim’s relative burned down a floor of the Ministry of Health—right around the corner from where I was living, and when I met Liberians who were spreading conspiracy theories about Ebola and saying that it wasn’t real, and when citizens started attacking health workers,” Breen said.

With 85% of Liberians living below the international poverty line, Breen witnessed an already fragile country become shattered by the health crisis.
“The Liberian government, although its resources were limited, did not adequately respond to the crisis when Ebola initially arrived in the country. Some Liberians have told me that the government didn’t implement adequate disease containment and prevention measures until they were able to get international assistance, which reflects the Liberian government’s international aid dependency,” Breen said.

Since the end of their civil war in 2003, Liberia has been gradually recovering, trying to grow its economy and increase its government resources. Much of this growth can be attributed to international aid.

“Because Liberia is a post-conflict state, the government often relies on international NGOs and international institutions and governments to respond to social, economic and healthcare issues,” Breen said.

The cost of the Ebola outbreak cannot be measured simply by its death count, which is over 2,400 people of the 4,784 diagnosed cases, but only in conjunction with its extreme economic and social impacts that reach well beyond the virus’ mortality rate.

“The crisis has caused businesses to shut down or slow, international investments have come to a halt, and with the costs of food rising, many families are struggling to eat,” Breen wrote in an article for the Washington Post titled “Fighting Ebola, Liberia’s ‘Invisible Rebel.’” Breen wrote the article in August after returning to the U.S.. Professor Laura Seay posted the article on the Monkey Cage, a political science blog for the Washington Post, to which Seay regularly contributes.

Breen saw how the virus impacted Liberian’s with whom she was close: “My housemate’s brother got into a motorcycle accident and was bleeding for 18 hours but could not go to a doctor… Airlines have canceled flights, there is no way to get out of Liberia. It can be a death sentence, and the citizens cannot do anything to change the situation.”

Additionally, Breen became sick during the end of her internship and experienced first-hand the impact of the crisis. “I couldn’t go to the hospital, so I just had to wait it out for ten days. I had different symptoms than Ebola, so I wasn’t worried about that, but it really hit me knowing that I was sick but couldn’t do anything about it and couldn’t get a proper diagnosis or medication. I just had to hope I would get better,” Breen said. “Most Liberian citizens don’t have the option to go to the U.S. and get high quality health care. A lot of people have died from non-Ebola illness or injury. Without an intact health care system, the country cannot function,” she said.

By mid-August, Doctors without Borders said that the situation in Monrovia was “catastrophic” and “deteriorating daily,” and the crisis has only continued to worsen. Without an available vaccine and only minimal local and global healthcare resources, there is no answer in sight to resolving the outbreak.

Additionally, “There are not enough West African doctors and this is a disease that affects ‘poor Africans,’ meaning there is no market for a vaccine and no incentive for Western researchers to develop a vaccine,” Breen said.
Some experimental drugs and treatments do exist, such as ZMapp, but are not available for mass distribution. However, the drugs were given to two American citizens who contracted the disease. “The American health workers’ passport privilege enabled them top medical treatment in the U.S, but thousands of West Africans aren’t so lucky,” Breen said.

“Especially because of globalization, it is in the interest of the global community to have healthy people in all countries. We can’t keep looking at Ebola as a disease that’s limited to the poor in rural Africa because ultimately this is having an impact on the global economy and global health stability,” Breen said.

While the Ebola outbreak has had a severe short-term impact, this crisis will also have lasting impacts on the country’s progress and development from an economic and societal standpoint. “It is so multilayered; in order for the crisis to be addressed, not only healthcare issues but also cultural and political issues need to be tackled,” Breen said.

Despite the devastation of the disease, that has not discouraged Liberian citizen’s from helping to fight the crisis. The independent efforts of the citizens and their determination struck Breen.

“There are some Liberian groups responding in their own ways, and although they might not have great resources, they are determined to contribute to Ebola’s end,” Breen said, and continued, “I have one Liberian friend who donated $900 in food because quarantined communities were starving. Another Liberian friend runs a film NGO and is leading response and awareness initiatives. My Liberian housemate is volunteering at an Ebola emergency hotline call center. I know others at radio stations investing in Ebola awareness songs and programs.”

Although, the mass media has barely touched upon the efforts of the citizens of Liberia and other countries afflicted by the disease, Breen recognized the importance of their role in fighting the virus. “It is important to acknowledge the local people who are responding to the crisis, even with limited resources. Many Liberian citizens have the desire to make positive change that will reverse Ebola’s devastation, but stronger tools, skills, knowledge, resources and money would advance current local initiatives.”

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