Unkonda Rasheda Sawyer
In December 2013, when the Ebola virus broke out in West Africa, I was in Burkina Faso. I’d finished my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer and extended my stay so I could gain more work experience with international aid organizations. What I witnessed over the next few months was something I never thought I would see duplicated in the United States. Yet here we are, nearly ten years later, and all I can think of is the phrase “deja vu all over again.”
I should explain a little about my background. I’m descended from formerly enslaved people repatriated to West Africa in the 1800s. The Creoles dominated Liberian politics for roughly a century; in fact, my uncle was acting president of Liberia in the 1990s. Earlier, when the country had fallen into civil war my parents fled, taking us to the United States. I was five years old.
I admit that, to some extent, I bought into the idea that Liberia and its neighboring countries - Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire - were deficient when it came to civil society especially in contrast to America. For us, in many ways, the U.S. had been “the shining city on a hill.” I wouldn’t say this was a conscious assumption on my part; neither was it completely untrue. I grew up living in Maryland. I went to good private Catholic schools. My family was secure.
I could not have conceived that America would look so much like Liberia, which, even after climbing out of the deepest part of the crater its big men dug in the ‘90s, still has only thin skin of governance. But as I lived through Ebola, and six years later, Covid, I realized how naive I had been.
Ebola was shocking enough. I don’t mean simply the disease, which was awful: a hemorrhagic fever that kills 90 percent of the people who catch it. The disease was horrifying, but the reactions to it were, in a certain sense, more unsettling. I watched as government officials and individuals responded to a crisis with denial, and citizens acted out with rage, superstition, scapegoating, and, sometimes, bar hopping. It wasn’t all bleak. There were acts of generosity and even heroism.
Mostly there was hysteria and really, really bad information.
The News By Any Other Name
It was December, that year, 2013 when the news arrived to us in Ouagadougou that cases of Ebola had been detected in Guinea. There was no official announcement that the disease was Ebola. But the Africans I knew were very aware of it, because Ebola had been identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 and periodically resurfaced after that. The symptoms were not subtle. Terrible bleeding and rapid death.
In Burkina Faso, we listened to the news intently every day to find out whatever we could about how Guinea was handling it. We tried finding out what was happening from international channels such as France 24 and BBC Africa; and local channels such as Radio Television Burkina (RTB) or Radio Omega, desperate to find out whatever we could about how Guinea was handling the outbreak. Basically, the Guinean method seemed to consist of denial. It wasn't until March 2014 — more than three months after the outbreak started — that the Guinean government even acknowledged the problem.
That’s not to say we didn’t get information. We had a different way of being informed. To understand the way information traveled, it is important to understand that Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina, Guinea are linked geographically, historically, politically, economically, and culturally. The borders, drawn by colonialists, are extremely porous. Personally, I remember that Burkinabe mercenaries weresent to Liberia during Liberia’s civil war. And I had always heard how Liberia’s ex-president, the U.S.-educated warlord Charles Taylor, was a frequent presence in Burkina Faso. He had a home there and schooled at least one of his children at the International school of Ouagadougou.
In 2013, news traveled along with commodities like tomatoes or tires. Gueckedou, Guinea is a regional trading post, so merchants and commercial vehicles traveledto and from Liberia regularly. By Christmas, even though media outlets relying on the official reports weren’t giving us the information we needed, people in Burkina Faso were already discussing what actions could be taken if Ebola was to inch nearer. I recall a conversation with a friend who said, "Bon, on attend pas le blanch pour nos informations." Loosely translated means "we don't wait to white people for our news.”
Even though it would be months later when an Ebola outbreak was officially declared, the Burkina Faso government had already begun taking action. Everyone around me comforted me that everything would be fine, that measures would be taken to stop Ebola before it reached us.
Perhaps I should have worried about my own safety but what was troubling me was the way Liberia would respond. I may have been reacting to my early memories. My Uncle Amos had been an outspoken activist, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was president when Ebola broke out. In 1983, Amos became one of the founders of the Liberian People’s Party. I was a toddler when his home was set ablaze and he was clapped into jail, along with Sirleaf, for protesting government policies.
To the outside world, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's election seemed to put an end to Liberia's troubles. But no single person was no panacea for a society that had been in ruins. As reports of Ebola's brutal toll surfaced, I worried about my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. One of my college roommates had moved to Liberia, too, and several cousins had moved there. I was a wreck.
My friends in Burkina could see it on my face, but most couldn't understand why I was so upset. I had to explain why I was convinced that my friends and relatives were in peril. Liberia shares a border with Guinea. Liberia imports goods from Guinea and movement across the border is very fluid. An outbreak in Guinea would be an outbreak in Liberia.
As I had anticipated, the virus soon spread to Liberia. It moved through the country at warp speed.
A Strange, Unknown Enemy
Despite the warnings, my relatives complained that the government wasn't taking measures to combat the disease. Night clubs, markets, and football stadiums were packed. In rural areas, people believed Ebola was a curse. Traditional death rituals of washing and cleaning the dead spread the disease, but it was difficult to convince grieving relatives to abandon their loved ones.
And when fears rose, so did traditional religious beliefs. Wild rumors spread that doctors and nurses were harvesting the organs of the dead. These rumors were not confined to Liberia. In Guinea, aid workers from Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), were forced to evacuate a health center because of the threat of violent attacks. In 2018, when Ebola cycled through Congo, the same scenario played out.
My relatives and friends isolated. They asked friends not to visit, hoping they would understand. They worked at home. My cousin set up a hand washing station for people who didn’t have ready access to clean water. I listened to complaints. Most Liberians were not taking the outbreak seriously. Yet Ebola killed 90 percent of those infected and the deaths were devastatingly painful and grisly.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf later would call Ebola “a strange, unknown enemy” and admit that the government didn’t know how to respond. In her defense, she would later tell the press that the country had only two ambulances. Doctors and nurses were afraid to work; those who did were swiftly killed by the virus.
It was chaos.
That's why I couldn’t believe it when I learned that the Independence Day celebrations would still be going on. Here's what I read in a newspaper:
MONROVIA, LIBERIA: JULY 26, LIBERIA'S INDEPENDENCE, DESPITE THE EBOLA TRAGEDY SOME CHOSE TO CELEBRATE LIFE WHILE RECOGNIZING THE NEED TO AWARE OF THIS VIRUS. THE PLACE TO BE WAS THE DAY PARTY AT THE SKYBAR.
Party at the Skybar? Really? I was outraged. Where is the government, I remember thinking. What are the protocols, what is the national response? Some of the people who attended some of these gatherings later contracted Ebola and died. I began to wonder how we could keep Burkina safe if Liberia's outbreak spread across our borders.
I remember my family in Liberia and the United States asking what measures the Burkinabé government was taking. Burkina stood in sharp contract to Liberia. Police went around to street vendors to verify they were not selling, or cooking outlawed foods such as bush meat. People were advised not to travel. At the borders guards did temperature checks and verifying departure and arrival information. If a visitor was coming from an infected country they were not permitted to enter.
A full-fledged awareness campaign took place over the course of several months. Businesses, hospitals, schools, and all public places were to train, emphasize, and display prevention measures.
Finally, in September 2014, Liberia marshaled the resources to fight the virus. Initially, Sirleaf went hard, using the military to close the country’s borders. Inevitably, she was criticized for this, just as she had earlier been criticized for failing to act.
What made the real difference was help from the outside world. It took the death of a Liberian, Thomas Edward Duncan, 42, in Texas to galvanize a response from the U.S. Given the historic relationship between the two countries - Liberia is often called a colony of the U.S. in all but name and the Firestone tire company had dominated Liberia's economy for much of the country's existence - one might argue that help should have come sooner. But at least the world was now aware of the threat posed by Ebola.
I was in favor of all of it, of course, both in Liberia and Burkina. But my principles faltered when it came to my wedding, which I was planning for December 2014. I hadn’t anticipated that an hotelier would ask if any family members would be coming from Liberia. It was hard to know what to feel. I was offended, but I, too, had concern that if people came for the wedding we might end up getting Ebola. It felt like something out of a horror movie.
Between an epidemic and civil unrest in Burkina Faso, we could have made a tragicomic version of a romcom. But we were married, and like every wedding, it was perfect in its imperfections.
By the end of the Ebola outbreak nearly two years later, Liberia had suffered the most casualties of the region’s four countries. Nearly 5,000 people died in Liberia by the time the Liberian government declared it Ebola-free. I was immensely relieved that none of my friends or relatives were of that number.
The Skybar, Monrovia
The Failed State of America
During the Ebola crisis, that term failed state, which had come into parlance in the early 1990s, resurfaced. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had been a figure of salvation but Ebola nearly destroyed her reputation. Even if Sirleaf had acted more rapidly, Liberia’s public health infrastructure was so poor that a high death toll was inevitable. People were using makeshift PPEs made of garbage bags and cloth to get by on a daily basis. Liberians in the U.S. were signing petitions, asking the Obama administration for help, and, on their own setting up GoFundMe campaigns for personal protective equipment for the home country.
The correlations to what I saw in the first year of Covid are astonishing. The United States of America couldn’t secure and supply enough medical-grade masks and gloves to healthcare workers. Corpses were piling up in parking lots. The United States was unprepared to battle a pandemic.
This was the United States, not Liberia, a country ranked between Angola and Libya in Transparency International’s Fragile States Index.
And in the later stages of the pandemic, the U.S. resembled Liberia in another way: the country had been crippled by the public's loss of faith in government, and, frankly, in many social institutions. A study published in The Lancet indicated that countries whose citizens trust the government achieve much higher vaccination rates, without mandates, and lower death rates overall. While more cohesive countries had vaccination rates as high as 90 percent, the U.S. was stuck at roughly 70 percent.
In Liberia, public distrust of government clearly contributed to the breakdown of public health measures. Liberia had long had its struggles with corrupt leaders, civil unrest, civil war, coup d’états, and mass displacement of the population. A failure to respond during the Ebola outbreak was just the last in a long line of failures, solidifying what Liberians have known for years. But the United States? This was the place my family had found safety, the rock of my childhood.
In 2019 I found myself living in Zanzibar. My husband and I and our young son had left Burkina, fearing that the instability was making the country too dangerous. What did I say about deja vu all over again? Not long after we arrived, I started hearing word of a virus in China. Remember SARS and H1N1, my first thought was here we go, another virus coming from China. My second thought was I hope it doesn't reach Zanzibar, which has a large Chinese transient population of workers and investors, plus tons of tourists.
By February, European countries were seeing outbreaks, and it was clear that Zanzibar would not be spared. It felt a bit eerie that I wasn't hearing about how the U.S. was going to combat the spread of coronavirus. I hadn’t heard a single concrete measure the U.S. government was taking. The country seemed to be acting as if it was business as usual.
Even though the United States, the country where I am a naturalized citizen, had a president who was bizarre, to say the least; I was sure that our other institutions would take the lead in fighting the virus domestically and internationally. That was what I was used to as an American.
March came and went. Still there was no direction coming from the United States. In Zanzibar schools and businesses were contemplating when it made sense to close and for how long. On March 18, 2020, the official message came from the Tanzanian government that schools were closed for a minimum of 30 days. At that point I started paying closer attention to the American news to find out what was happening.
Of course, I was speaking to my family in the States. My mom is a teacher. Her school had closed, too, and she was uncertain when they would go back. On the night the Tanzanian government made its announcement, I decided to listen to the White House briefings on the Internet. I assumed that although the Trump administration was inept, for a pandemic they would pull themselves together and mount a presidential response.
I listened that night to the White House briefing, and came away even more confused. But I also was scared. The president sounded like someone who had no clue what was going on. What was worse, there seemed to be no plan for dealing with a virus that seemed quite dangerous.
I watched the White House briefings for a few more nights thinking something would eventually come of them. As the nights went on, I grew more and more fearful. Listening to the president of the United States speak so incoherently was giving me a grimmer outlook, both of the future of the virus and of America’s future.
Trump sounded the same as leaders of tragically failed states. Maybe worse. By March, like many others, I was listening to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press briefings. I stopped watching the White House press briefings and tuned into to Governor Cuomo's briefings every single day.
As the months went on, I watched how governors scrabbled to get personal protective equipment. I watched a federal government that was more hands off than I had ever witnessed in America. I yearned for leadership. Mostly I felt sad.
Over the next months, I had a kind of double vision. First, I saw the government’s denial that a crisis was threatening the lives of the American people.
I saw panic and superstition spread with the reach and alacrity of the virus itself, fake news and conspiracy theories that made so little sense, I couldn’t believe the people I had lived with for most of my life could take these mad ideas seriously.
As hospitals broke under the strain, I saw wild parties, not at Monrovia’s Skybar but at Bonnaroo.
I saw individuals taking action, but for a long time, only that. Nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians, working unbelievable shifts as the bodies piled up.
Later I would hear the same "blame for the messenger" rhetoric. There was nothing more shocking than the threats of violence - unconvincingly crafted with tissue-paper-thin deniability - by Fox News talking head Jesse Watters against Dr. Anthony Fauci. It was unthinkable that, in the United States, an 81-year-old doctor who had devoted his career to fighting disease suddenly needed bodyguards. In traditional West African religions, unconventional women were called witches and blamed when misfortune befell a community. The same had happened in colonial days in the U.S. And I remembered when the Medicins Sans Frontieres personnel had been run out of Guinea. This couldn’t happen in contemporary America, I thought.
An unbearable sadness took over as I realized that nobody was in charge. America was no longer a global leader. Nobody was looking to us to do anything. I was seeing a great nation, a country I still believe can be great, reduced to something close to a failed state. Our public services were overwhelmed and failing. The Trump administration had institutionalized corruption. There is no more powerful corrosive force. To my disgust, the pandemic did not slow down the graft or influence-peddling.
Later, Americans would point to the events of January 6, 2021 as an example of how close the country came to a coup d'etat. I believe the decisive moment was earlier: June 11, 2020, when General Mark Milley apologized for appearing with Donald Trump at Lafayette Square after the administration had brutally dispersed protesters. Milley and the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement asserting that the military leadership would remain loyal to the U.S. constitution - not to a demagogue.
Military interference in national politics and an ineffective judicial system are the last elements of failed states. Calling active duty soldiers to disperse peaceful protesters and failing to charge and prosecute police officers who murder citizens were steps toward that final dissolution. I invite you to look up the social indicators of a failed state; if Trump is re-elected, we can guarantee that America will join the ranks of Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.
I am concerned. The country's divisions continue to deepen. Remember, Liberia’s downfall had started with civil war.
It's All Connected
What capped it all off for me was the civil unrest accompanying citizens protesting the death of a black man killed tragically by police: George Floyd. Learning of Floyd’s death, I remembered that in 2014, while Ebola was raging, the racism hit home to me, again from a distance. That was when police killed Eric Garner, a black man in New York, one of a long list of Black American citizens murdered by police on a regular basis in the United States. These outbreaks of plague accompanied by widespread fear and hysteria became associated for me with the murders of black men.
We have moved from mass enslavement to mass incarceration, and between those two, widespread murder and homicides at the hands of police, and other racist whites calling themselves vigilantes. Americans cannot overcome threats to the country’s national integrity if racism persists. Racism is intricately tied to the demoralization that seeps into the populace when a government does not protect its citizens.
During the coronavirus pandemic it was another high-profile death that ripped off the thin scab we had grown on racism; George Floyd was yet another black man that met his fate at the hands of, or rather at the knee of, a white officer who kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. He died on camera and the world watched. Anger spilled through me and was proud to see people protesting.
During the lockdown, I was secretly happy that fewer people would be out and there would be fewer chances for black people to get killed by police. But I was scared too, because I was thinking just because you don' hear about or see a killing on video, doesn't mean someone didn't get murdered.
As more states opened, gun violence started to get reported, and came the tragic and horrible story of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black jogger and chased and allegedly murdered by three white men in Georgia in early 2020.
The pain of racism is so deep; it burns and literally makes it so you can't breathe. The story of my family spans the history of black Africans and their relationship with America. I want better for the United States. I want better for all of us.
Unkonda Rasheda Sawyer has worked for several international aid agencies. She is the author of the children's book Who Knew New Words? which tells the story of a little boy sent home from school because of Covid.
We Put a Spell on You
Brian's Magical Mystery Playlist
Season of the Witch ::: Donovan
Witch Doctor ::: The Coolers
Stranger In My Own HomeTown ::: Ray Charles
This Ain’t America ::: Melvin Van Peebles
Vaccination ::: Neba Solo
Creole Love Call ::: The Comedian Harmonists
Dance of the Witch Doctor
Witchcraft ::: Frank Sinatra
The Wedding ::: Abdullah Ibrahim