For the first time in months, there is reason for hope in Liberia. Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the country's Ebola outbreak - which has infected nearly 5,000 people, with a fatality rate exceeding 50 percent - may be slowing down. Hospitals in the capital, Monrovia, are no longer overwhelmed with patients, and public health authorities are reporting a drop in new cases. The good news comes on the heels of a preliminary WHO report that suggested the infection rate in West Africa could reach 10,000 per week by the end of the year.
However, even if the outbreak in Liberia is indeed losing momentum, caution is still in order. The past few weeks have also seen a spike in new infections in neighbouring Sierra Leone and the first documented case in Mali. For now, the only certainty is that Ebola has implanted itself into the lives of millions of West Africans. Life goes on - and will continue to go on for a long time to come - in the shadow of the virus.
I wanted to know how people in Monrovia, where the outbreak has hit hardest, are coping, so I checked in with my old friend Segbe Nyanfor, a human rights activist and long-time resident. Having come of age during the first Liberian civil war (1989-1997), and started a family during the second (1999-2003), Segbe has seen his fair share of upheaval.
A few years ago, while reporting on Liberia's first post-war election, I had the good fortune to stay with him and his family, who were incredibly generous hosts. During the day I shadowed Segbe and his team of election monitors. At night I'd listen to his stories about the Charles Taylor era, always told with the same nuance and understatement. So I figured that if anyone could put the current crisis into context, it would be him. Recently, he agreed to answer a few of my questions.
VICE: Segbe, thanks for talking to me. How's the family?
Segbe Nyanfor: The family is fine. Junior [Segbe's 21-year-old son] is finishing his senior year in biology at university. He wants to become a doctor. Once he's done his first degree he can apply to medical school at the University of Liberia. But school [has been] suspended since August. Many of the students are fearful because there have been some cases of Ebola. A few students died. In fact, all of the schools [have been] suspended since August - primary, high school, all of the educational institutions. The girls [Segbe has two daughters, 13 and 18] are at home, too. My wife is staying with them.
What's it like outside right now?
These days in Monrovia, the streets are empty. You might meet very few people on the street. Public offices are suspended, school is suspended. The markets are quiet, one or two businesses are open. I go to my office three, four days in a week, but most of my colleagues do not go at all. For the past three or four months everyone is staying home. They are too fearful. It's like it was during wartime. I remember people were fearful to go out; they just stayed home. It is the same today. Except, with Ebola, you can't see the enemy. And what we have right now is a curfew.
Why is there a curfew?
The government wants to reduce the chance of people spreading the disease. They make people stay at home from 11PM until 6AM so the medical workers can see what is what, who is getting sick.
The government is sending health workers door-to-door to look for cases?
Sometimes. There is a number you can call if you have symptoms or you see someone who is sick.
Do people blame the government for the epidemic?
At the beginning everyone was blaming the government. Ebola spread too quickly because the government did not act fast enough. There was some education but not enough action. People quickly realised they have to depend on themselves to stay safe. For prevention, I think this helped. No one is waiting for the government to save them. We are taking our own precautions.
How do you stay safe when you go out?
What I do is what everyone does: I avoid touching and I carry a small bottle of chlorine solution for washing the hands. People are wearing long sleeves and they avoid going in vehicles with many other people. You know the transport here, everybody crowds in close together on the buses and taxis. Not any more. Every time you go in a vehicle with lots of other people - wherever there is contact - you wash yourself right away to eliminate any possibility of contact with Ebola.
I am washing all the time. Ebola is making crazy habits.
That must be exhausting, always having to worry about touching people. In Liberia, everyone is always shaking hands, hugging.
****Not any more! Now there is no more shaking of hands in Liberia.
So there's a lot of fear.
You could say so, yes. People are worrying. There is more fear than Ebola.
Has anyone in your neighbourhood been sick?
Some people have come down with a fever, but it turned out to be malaria and other illnesses. Everyone was fearing the worst because it is hard to tell what is Ebola and what is a common illness until you are very sick. Every household has a solution bucket at the entrance of the house where you wash your hands, your exposed body parts and the soles of shoes with that solution.
Do you worry about keeping your family safe?
For three or four months now my children do not go out to play with other kids. They must clean their hands every time they enter the house and they do not touch one another, either. It's difficult for our family and for all families, not touching like that, because it has been so long. We look at each other, no hugging, no touching.
It is very difficult, but we are all getting accepted to that, forming new habits. Those of us who don't follow the new habit, we will get sick eventually. So everyone keeps to themselves. That's the best way to be safe, but it is difficult, being isolated from your friends and relations.
What do you do for fun?
People are talking on the phone - that is replacing social contact. Where before there would be some gathering [where] people would get together - in the market, in the community, in the church - now people are keeping to themselves. It was a traditional way, being close, but no more... no one is doing that now. People are wary of others, not like before. Church is the only time we go out together as a family every week.
It really is a new way of life for Liberians. Ebola is changing our traditions. Before, when someone died and there was a dead body, people - the family - they gathered together to pray. They might sleep over at the house of the deceased and mourn the dead together. It is an important ritual. But that has been rebuked. We know that, at some funerals, everybody got sick with Ebola. That has made everyone afraid. So the tradition of washing bodies - that's stopping because people got sick and died. If people want to do that now - if they want to observe the old traditions - they have to get a health worker to come to determine whether the person died of Ebola or not. If the body tests positive for the Ebola virus it is taken away and cremated, or treated with chlorine and buried. We don't say goodbye as we normally would. Other traditions are being abandoned, too, because people want to be safe.
Are people hopeful that the epidemic will be over soon?
We are praying for the dry season to slow the outbreak. The good news is that the virus doesn't last as long away from the body when it is very hot outside. There is hope that now it will be harder for the virus to spread. Normally we don't want so much sun, but now we welcome it. But even after Ebola is gone it will take some time to go back to the old way of life, just like after the war. There is too much fear right now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
More stories about the Ebola outbreak:
_WATCH - _The Fight Against Ebola