This story is over 5 years old.


'We Are Laying Down Like Dogs': The Long Wait For Ebola Treatment in Liberia

Outside the gates of an overtaxed Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, sick people wait — and die — while hoping to get access to medical care.
Photo d'Ashoka Mukpo

For the second day in a row, Victor Kemey was trying to find a health center that would treat his sick son. The day before, they'd gone to John F. Kennedy hospital in Monrovia, but were turned away by staff who said there weren't enough beds. Overnight, his son's fever worsened.

And so at 6am Kemey brought the boy to the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Ebola treatment facility on the outskirts of Monrovia. MSF staff told him they didn't have room for new patients and asked him to wait outside the gates.


By 2pm, Victor's son was dead in the back seat of his car.

"After my son told me he was sick, the only alternative was to take him to the hospital," Kemey told VICE News. "The hospital should have told me what was happening to him, but they didn't. It's wrong."

Cuba pledges healthcare workers to fight Ebola in West Africa. Read more here.

Next to Kemey's car was a young girl who looked to be no more than 8 years old, laying motionless on the dirt. Her thin frame was covered with a sheet; her mother stood against a nearby wall with her head bowed. Hours passed before an exhausted-looking MSF doctor emerged from the facility's gate and surveyed the scene. He stopped for a moment and stared at the young girl before asking her mother for the child's name.

The next day, one of Liberia's few Ebola response ambulances brought seven more suspected cases to the MSF facility, but the ambulance operators were told that there was no room. Most of the patients were unable to stand or even sit, collapsing on the ground. The ambulance's driver paced in frustration, asking where he should take them.

Scenes like this are common outside the MSF treatment center in Monrovia, located on land that was once owned by a church group called Eternal Love Winning Africa. Beleaguered MSF staff confirm that the outbreak is getting worse, with cases mounting faster than the organization can treat them. Every day, between 15 and 20 bodies are carried from the facility to a nearby cremation site.


"The facility is completely overcapacity, and we're having to turn people away," said Caitlin Ryan, an MSF communications officer. "We're utterly overwhelmed, there are no other words for it.

"This is a humanitarian disaster, not just an epidemic."

Inside the facility, MSF staff work around the clock to test suspected cases and treat those who have been confirmed as carriers of the virus. Most of the workers are Liberians who have been trained in the past two months. Despite the high daily death toll, the center's 150 beds are continually filled with Ebola patients treated by staff wearing protective rubber suits.

Liberia's health sector has collapsed in recent months. More than 150 Liberian health workers have contracted the virus; nearly 100 of them have died. Those who are still working in the country's hospitals and clinics complain about dangerous conditions and inadequate equipment. Earlier this month, nurses at John F. Kennedy hospital went on strike, citing low pay and fear of Ebola. Liberian doctors and health workers are successfully treating patients in the few centers that are operating, but the system is under critical strain.

Earlier this month, Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown urged the world to send help. "We cannot make the case stronger," he said. "We demand a response from the international community that equals the challenge we face. We need an unprecedented response, just as we face an unprecedented outbreak."


According to the World Health Organization, Liberia faces an "exponential" increase in Ebola cases in coming weeks. While the proportion of cases is still low relative to the population, the lack of treatment centers in the country is contributing to the spread of the virus. Ebola carriers must often search the city for medical care, raising the risk that they'll infect others. New facilities are quickly overwhelmed with patients. Existing facilities face shortages of medical personnel.

Outside the MSF center, it is common to see patients arrive in yellow taxis that ferry commuters to and from work. The WHO points to this practice as a contributing factor in Ebola's spread, but for sick Liberians who cannot find one of the city's scarce ambulances, there is often little choice.

Ebola is indirectly leading to deaths of people who don't even have it. Liberia is plagued by diseases like malaria and typhoid fever, and more people are dying of those maladies due to lack of care. Monrovia's residents are frustrated and scared. "Ebola buckets" filled with chlorine and water sit outside every shop, restaurant, and business, and radio stations play Ebola awareness messages every 10 minutes.

The WHO has called for a more robust international response to the crisis in Liberia, saying that wealthy countries will need to "scale up their current efforts by three- to four-fold." On September 16, President Barack Obama announced Operation United Assistance, an operation based in Monrovia in which the US will send up to 3,000 military personnel to the region to battle the disease.

For now, however, shortages of ambulances, medical staff, and treatment facilities guarantee that the virus will continue to spread.

Mapping Ebola outbreaks: The area of infection is much bigger than previously thought. Read more here.

Standing outside the MSF treatment center next to his dead son, Kemey spoke angrily about the crisis that claimed his son's life. "We have lost all our dignity," he said. "We are laying down like dogs, suffering in our own land."

Follow Ashoka Mukpo on Twitter: @unkyoka