Liberia declared Ebola-free

New York Times journalist brought ‘human element’ to crisis stories

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Ebola epidemic that hit several West Africa countries, including Liberia in 2014, and claimed over 10,000 lives has settled down. U.S. President Barack Obama last month called for an international effort to help rebuild health systems in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

“There’s no real good public health care in Liberia,” explained New York Times Correspondent Helene Cooper during her May 4 appearance at MPR News’ Broadcast Journalist Series at St. Thomas University. She was born in Monrovia, Liberia and came to the U.S. with her family at age 14 after a coup in 1980. She covered the Ebola outbreak last year, and earlier this year her newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

Helene Cooper at MPR News’ Broadcast Journalist Series at St. Thomas University, May 9 event.
Helene Cooper at MPR News’ Broadcast Journalist Series at St. Thomas University May 4.

“There are dozens and dozens of Liberians who are trained as doctors but live outside of Liberia because they don’t want to live [there],” Cooper said.

The World Health Organization reports that there have been no new Ebola cases in Liberia since March 20, and therefore declared the country Ebola-free on Saturday, May 9.

“I’m glad that Ebola is coming to an end,” said Liberian-born St. Thomas senior Hawa Fotana of Champlin, Minnesota.

However, fear and anxiety about Ebola throughout the crisis ostracized some U.S. Liberians both locally and nationally. There are approximately 30,000 Liberians living in Minnesota, with around 8,000 of them in Brooklyn Park.

Father James Wilson, the pastor of St. Philip and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in St. Paul, told the MSR, “People were afraid to be around us because we are Liberians and Ebola was in Liberia. People have the right to be afraid.”

“Personally I didn’t experience that, but I know people throughout the community who did experience discrimination,” admitted Fotana.

“Everything is fine right now,” added Wilson.

Helene Cooper with Hawa Fotana, a St. Thomas senior.
Helene Cooper with Hawa Fotana, a St. Thomas senior.

Several of her family members didn’t want her to go back to her native country to cover the crisis, recalled Cooper. “I’m sure that’s part of human nature. My mom said absolutely not. My younger sister had a lot of problems with it — she was very, very opposed [to it].” She attributed much of the fear to the lack of education.

“I wasn’t worried or afraid” but pointed out that she learned more about Ebola after her arrival in Liberia last year. “You also learn what you need to do to take care of yourself.”

You can’t get Ebola just by standing next to someone, noted the Times reporter: “It’s transferred by bodily fluids. This is a disease that spreads by very visibly sick people. If somebody had Ebola and they are healthy enough to be walking around, they are not going to be sick enough to get to you. You learn all of that by going there and experiencing these things.”

As a result, Cooper said she wanted to help produce better stories than what she saw and read from other U.S. media. “I thought a lot of the coverage was missing the human element. I stopped watching CNN, Fox, or any of them because they drove me crazy.”

The Ebola crisis occurred after a 10-year stretch of peace, which included electing Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first African woman president, continued Cooper. “Things were slowly coming back. It was such a big hole the country was trying to claw its way out of, and it was on the right path. This horrific epidemic was really hard for anyone to see [coming].

“I think what Ebola has done is not just brought gains to a halt,” continued Cooper, “but it also turned a spotlight on everything that was wrong in Liberia. Liberia has gone through a lot in the 30 or so years, including a real wretched civil war that lasted 15 years and saw so much of the population decimated and many social norms torn apart.

“The one story I really wanted to do [was] a touching story, because I had so many questions… One of the first women I met was a mother with a two-year-old daughter [who had Ebola]. I talked to people who caught it from their mother, sister — that was the story I most wanted to do. I wanted to do it as counter to the narrative that we were getting here in the United States. I wanted to lay it out for the American audience.”

“I’m glad that a Liberian was able to cover the crisis,” said Fotana.

“The next big story is whether [Liberia] can come back from Ebola,” said Cooper. “I think it can.”


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Edited: 5/18/2015 11:54 am