by Michael Keating

My heart breaks every time I read a story about the Ebola crisis in Liberia. Since 2006 I have been traveling to Liberia several times a year to work on a wide variety of development assistance projects. I have worked with journalists, with government ministries, with business associations, with entrepreneurs, professors, students and with rural farmers. I have friends from every walk of life with whom I stay in touch regularly via e-mail and Skype. These days everyone has an Ebola story to tell. Many of my friends with resources have left the country and are waiting out the storm in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere in Africa. They talk about the suspicion that is aroused by the mere mention of the fact of their having come from Liberia. They mention the painful reluctance they feel to reach out and physically touch their fellow human beings, which is such a big and joyful part of the daily rituals of life in West Africa.

This summer I have been very close to Ebola. In June I worked in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for several weeks. It was during the early stages of the World Cup. In the bar where I watched the games the Lebanese owner was disappointed in the turnout. He has spent some extra money getting posters printed, a wide-screen TV installed and stocking up on special foods and extra beer. By the time the elimination round started he was sure his investment was for naught. Ebola was already starting to keep people indoors. Freetown was awakening to the fact that what had been a monster invading the far reaches of the country was now sending its tentacles everywhere. In the office where I was working people meticulously doused their hands with sanitizer after every contact with the material world. I was told that my travel would be limited to the city limits of Freetown. How I was going to work with farm cooperatives and associations from a desk in Freetown is a question that many people in my line-of-work were now asking.

Shortly after I returned to the States several airlines announced they would no longer be flying to Sierra Leone. I had made it out with no problem but many of my colleagues on the project had difficulty getting home, some are still there and of course the ‘local’ team members aren’t likely going anywhere.

I have often read about ‘survivor’s guilt’. Although hardly the same thing as what is usually meant by the term, I think I have tasted at least a portion of it.

As I write this I was supposed to be over there starting the next phase of the project. On Saturday the New York Times just reported that it will now take 12 to 18 months to get this under control and as many as a quarter of a million people may be affected. Freetown has been declared off-limits by our project’s donor. I can only imagine the new hardships faced by the poor farmers of Sierra Leone who were struggling to survive even in the best of recent times.

But that was not my last encounter with Ebola this summer. By the time I arrived in Abuja, Nigeria in August the outbreak in the Mano River countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea was in full bloom and the first reported deaths had occurred in Lagos. When I arrived at the airport in Abuja a health worker wearing a face mask and rubber gloves took my temperature with a remote sensing device that emitted a red light not unlike the laser beam one sees on weapons. I was being targeted as a possible carrier. If I had had a fever I would have been grabbed and put into quarantine. The man who had brought Ebola to one of the world’s most populous cities was a Liberian seeking the medical help he knew he couldn’t get in Monrovia. It was an incredibly selfish move on his part. If Ebola gets loose in a city like Lagos the events unfolding in Liberia will look like a side-show to a medical apocalypse. The Nigerian press was calling for a boycott of all things Liberian. I wonder what I would have done if I were in his shoes?

By now my friends and family in the States were starting to worry about me. I was getting sent articles from U.S. newspapers that I was quite capable of reading, and was reading, in my hotel room. On CNN International the story was going ‘viral’, as they say, along with the perpetual horror show of the Middle East. Abuja seemed like an oasis of calm even though just a few hundred kilometers north Boko Haram was taking over Nigerian villages and threatening major provincial cities.

Oddly, when I finally arrived in the north of Nigeria to do my own work Ebola was more on my mind than terrorism. I felt reassured when my contacts told me there was absolutely no Ebola in Kano or Kaduna, this while we passed through heavily armed roadblocks and the shells of burned out cars. I have been in a lot of conflict zones where the enemy was another human being. I was just starting to come to terms with an enemy that couldn’t be seen and could kill with the quickness of a prosaic shaking of hands.

Last week I got a call about a project in Afghanistan. No Ebola there. My heart is breaking for my friends in West Africa. They can’t deal with this on their own.

CPDD senior fellow Michael Keating is an expert in the political economy of West Africa. During the course of his development consulting experience he has worked on projects funded by donors such as USAID, SIDA, DFID, the World Bank and a number of private foundations. His sector interests include agriculture, rural development, natural resource management, community engagement as well as media and communications.