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Former Ebola Fighters Feel As If They Get No Respect

Mohammed Zangar (left) and Amos Tomah find relief from the sun under the leaves of a mango tree.
Ingrid Gercama
Mohammed Zangar (left) and Amos Tomah find relief from the sun under the leaves of a mango tree.

They are the heroes nobody remembers.

"We were the foot soldiers," says Amos Tomah, 25. When Ebola struck Liberia, he went door-to-door to raise awareness about the disease; he earned about $80 a day for his two-week stint.

His friend, 42-year-old Rancy "Hooks" Harrison, used his taxi (and later, a Red Cross ambulance) to pick up bodies of Ebola victims from West Point, a poor neighborhood in the capital city of Monrovia. Hooks made $600 a month while working for the Red Cross.

Mohammed Zangar collected and disposed of infectious medical waste from Ebola patients — buckets with vomit and feces, cloth and paper used to clean up excrement. Zangar, 26, worked for Doctors Without Borders for six months and earned $300 a month.

Francis Cooper, 41, is still employed by the Liberian Red Cross as part of the National Burial Team. If a family member dies at home, the body is tested for Ebola. Cooper explains the procedure to the family. If test results are positive, he tries to convince them to let the body be safely buried and to skip traditional practices — bathing and touching, for example — that put people at risk of infection. His salary: $600 a month.

They stepped up to serve their country, and while they were afraid of the virus, they were happy with their paychecks. "We are poor in Liberia," says Tomah. "The money — it was sweet." Indeed, the gross national income per person was $410 in 2013.

Now the epidemic is under control. In March, only one new case was confirmed in Liberia.

So the four are no longer part of the army of Ebola fighters. Life is back to normal. Only not quite. They feel forgotten, neglected and stigmatized. They shared their stories — and grievances — as they sat on wooden chairs under the shade of a mango tree.

Harrison is back to driving his cab. Business is OK, but the $23 he earns a day is depleted by gas costs, car repairs and, he says, payoffs to cops at checkpoints. Harrison also sells gasoline, pouring the fluid into empty mayonnaise jars.

Tomah and Zangar make their living as peddlers, working out of a hut they built of wood and painted pink. Zangar uses part of the hut as an "entertainment center." For 10 Liberian dollars — that's about a dime — children can play a game on an old TV. Tomah sells cards from telecom companies for prepaid phone calls.

Cooper still has his job with the Red Cross, but doesn't know how long that will last. A schoolteacher for 20 years, he's afraid he won't be able to return to the classroom: "They will stigmatize me. I wake up at 4 in the morning: What will be my fallback position?"

The four believe they are entitled to additional funds. After all, they say, government ministers have promised benefit payments to Ebola fighters for the risks they took. But the money is going to health workers, so these men don't qualify. "We were not health workers," Tomah concedes. "We were just rendering community services."

Not everyone agrees with their request for extra funds. "I don't want to sound cynical," says Ciata Bishop, who chaired the country's Dead Body Management Team, "but I think we all need to learn to dust our butts. We need to pull up our trousers and try hard to make things work. We paid them during the Ebola time relatively well. We also gave them what they call 'a golden handshake' " — a month's extra salary for body collectors, for example.

The men have another item on their wish list: a bit more appreciation for what they did. Some Liberians are afraid they'll catch the virus from the ex-Ebola fighters, even though these four men were never sick and haven't had contact with Ebola patients for more than 21 days, the virus's incubation period.

Yet instead of admiring glances they get suspicious stares.

"If you tell the people what kind of work you were doing," says Harrison, "they paint you black."

Tomah says it's even hard to find a girlfriend. Women tell him, "You've contracted the Ebola virus." He laments: "I used to be a popular man. Now the girls don't favor me."

It's not just their imagination. "The people are afraid of them," says Henry Tony Jr., vice president of the Ebola survivor network at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and himself an Ebola survivor. "They are stigmatizing the people that worked during the Ebola outbreak, just like [they stigmatize] the survivors. They say they will spread the virus."

From their state of limbo, the four men are trying to figure out what to do next. Tomah and Zangar, for example, are studying at the University of Liberia. Amos is pursuing geology, and Zangar is a student of forestry.

Though they harbor some bitterness, they are proud of the work they did — and believe they gained from the experience. "I love learning how to talk to people, how to calm them down, how to motivate them," says Harrison.

And maybe someday the government will pay them the respect they feel they are lacking. "A statue for the Ebola fighters would be good," says Tomah, "so people will not forget about our efforts."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ingrid Gercama