I was waiting to board a plane when the news broke of Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan’s death in Dallas, Texas. Grainy images of the doomed man passed across the wide screen TV’s and stunned silence turned to fearful chatter.
“That’s it,” said one woman flatly, “It’s here.”
Duncan’s death from Ebola — followed quickly by news that two Dallas hospital workers had become infected — confirmed for many Americans that we’re no longer safe from the virus. But Liberian-Americans in the Pacific Northwest have been living with that inescapable reality for months.
“We get calls daily from Liberia about the situation,” says Pastor George Everett of Transcontinental Christian Ministries, a Kent church with many Liberian-Americans in its congregation, “We hear how much it is deteriorating and how people are dying daily.”
Everett’s own family has been deeply impacted; his wife has already lost her uncle her uncle’s wife and their five children to Ebola. This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 8,997 Ebola cases and 4,493 deaths —with Liberia being the hardest hit nation.
“Liberians are dying like chickens,” says Charles Mcgill, President of the Liberian Association of Washington State, “because there is no way to protect against the virus spreading all around.”
Mcgill says he was on the phone Tuesday night with friends in Central Liberia who reported they had no access protective supplies despite recent Ebola deaths in the region.
And local Liberians (there are an estimated 1,000 or so in the Seattle area) are trying to respond to the need — from car washes to raise money for relief to Ebola information packets circulated among the community. Mcgill says he was able to secure a donation of 77 boxes of protective masks from King County Public Health. Everett, with the help of a friend in Liberia and the generous donation of a California emergency medical services company, sent two ambulances to Monrovia to help with the crisis (four more are on their way now).
And then there are all the small, individual efforts. Brooks Collins, also of Transcontinental Ministries, says that many Liberian-Americans use phone calls home as an opportunity to educate relatives and friends — especially in more remote parts of the country — on how to take proper precautions against Ebola.
“We tell them about types of physical contact [that could transmit Ebola]. We say ‘be careful when you get in a taxi and don’t sit close to people,’ explains Collins, “[everyone is] calling the people back home. Trying to educate them and send money.”
But community leaders are now coming together to turn individual contributions into a larger group effort — one that includes fundraising for medical supplies, food (especially for areas under quarantine) and even travel to Liberia to volunteer if needed.
They say they have cultural and regional knowledge, as well as local contacts, that could be valuable in the effort, especially in a city home to such powerful Global Health players as the Gates Foundation.
“I know Seattle is like the center of humanitarian efforts in the United States so there’s so much here,” says Emmanuel Dolo, who studies leadership and organizational studies at Antioch University and would like to see the Liberian community partnered with existing local Ebola-response efforts, “But we know exactly what is happening, we know the communities so we know more about the problems.”
They may have the knowledge, but they don’t have the money, says Everett who visited Mercer Island Presbyterian Church last Sunday in an effort to raise awareness (and dollars) for two containers of medical supplies and food he plans to send back home.
“The country had been war ravaged, the health infrastructure broken down, no security, everything is a wreck. And in the middle of this came a disease called Ebola,” he says, a thin black cross stretching upwards on the wall behind him.
A watery autumn sun slants in through venetian blinds behind him as Everett tells his story and asks for help. The room leans forward over paper cups of coffee.
“Remember,” he says in closing “The health of one nation is tied to the health of all nations.”
That’s a lesson we’ve all learned this week.