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The fear in Ebola-wracked Liberia in 2014 is as great as it was during the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, said Helen Roberts-Evans, director of the Ministry of General Education of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in Liberia. Many people are afraid to care for or help a sick friend or family member for fear of contracting Ebola, and many are afraid to admit they or a family member has – or has recovered from – the virus, because of the stigmatization that has intensified from the epidemic.
Ms. Roberts-Evans, a missionary to Liberia, is a member of Sherman United Methodist Church on Ridge Avenue. Her work is also supported by First United Methodist Church. She was born in Liberia, but the family left when she was a year old. They eventually settled in Evanston, where Ms. Roberts-Evans attended Evanston Township High School. After college she worked for 20 years at the Child Care Center of Evanston, including nine as its executive director. She said she had always wanted to return to Liberia, but the civil unrest precluded the journey. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of Liberia in 2006, Ms. Roberts-Evans said, “I felt it was time to go.”
Her recent visit to Evanston came about because “the Methodist Church wanted all the missionaries to come and talk about the situation in Liberia,” said Ms. Roberts-Evans. Her plan was to leave today, Nov. 6, to return to Liberia.
On Oct. 28, Ms. Roberts-Evans spoke with the RoundTable about her work in trying to restore a fragile education system in Liberia and how the spread of the Ebola virus has affected that work. She trains teachers and supervises schools in a country where there is little electricity, only about 2% of the population has access to running water, and the typical pay for those who have jobs is $1.75 per day.
Education in Liberia
As a missionary and minister of education of the United Methodist Church, Ms. Roberts-Evans serves as a liaison between the church schools and the government’s Ministry of Education. Much of her work involves rebuilding or renovating schools – 59 in Liberia and one in Guinea – training teachers and distributing supplies to schools. She is also working with the government’s education ministry to help create policies and curricula for special education and early childhood education. “Anything that has to do with education or schools, I work on,” she said.
“Much of the country is impoverished,” said Ms. Roberts-Evans. Even in Monrovia, the capital, there is widespread poverty. In the country, “most people are subsistence farmers,” she said. One of the few types of cash transactions is the sale of farm goods at market.
The years of civil war and unrest caused the country to lose almost a generation of students and many teachers. A program now in place, Swords into Ploughshares, teaches carpentry skills to many who learned, too often by force, how to fight. In 2006, only a third of the [school-age] population in Liberia went to school, and teacher-training facilities suffered a lot of damage, Ms. Roberts-Evans said, but added, “In 2009 we had the first graduates there in 20 years.”
Ebola Disrupts the Country
The Ebola crisis was another blow to the country, said Ms. Roberts-Evans. “The [country was] trying to rebuild the health facilities destroyed in the war … but the health system has collapsed with Ebola.” Five thousand of the country’s 4 million people have contacted the virus, she said, but “if … 5,000 people have been infected, everyone in the country is affected. … The hospitals are not equipped to treat the patients. People with diabetes, high blood pressure and malaria have died because facilities closed. The focus has become setting up Ebola treatment centers, where people can be screened and tested.”
People wait in front of centers for bodies to be removed, in hopes they can be treated there, said Ms. Roberts-Evans. Some die waiting.
Foreign workers are leaving. “Companies are sending their workers home, so people are out of work. Schools have been closed since July, so there are no children in school and teachers are not working. The borders are closed, so that has affected trade. When a breadwinner gets sick or dies, that affects the family. Orphans are stigmatized when the parents died of Ebola. Usually, the people in a community would take care of anyone’s child in need.”
This new sense of fear is replacing the traditional sense of community, said Ms. Roberts-Evans. “People are now told not to touch. “The culture is so strong in caring for the sick and in preparing dead bodies by washing them that to say that you can’t touch is very difficult – especially if you don’t know why the person is sick,” she said. Several non-fatal diseases start out with the same symptoms as Ebola,
she said, and people are warned to stay away from anyone with those symptoms. She said the day she left Monrovia, there were 17 bodies untouched and unclaimed in the streets.
Education and ‘Running’ Water
Across the country, education is now about how to curb the contagion. “While the schools are closed, we’re focusing on community outreach,” said Ms. Roberts-Evans. “All schools are involved in community awareness and distributing supplies.” Signs and other means of interpretation for deaf people are important, because they cannot hear the information broadcast on the radio.
Modern plumbing is a rare luxury, even in the capital city, said Ms. Roberts-Evans, yet washing one’s hands in running water is one crucial way to stop the spread of Ebola. Buckets filled with bleach and soap and equipped with a spigot have to suffice. “We’re trying to get these buckets distributed across the country,” she said.
The United States government, the World Health Organization, several countries and multinational corporations have promised aid to Liberia. The U.S. has committed to about $750 million in aid, including 3,000 military personnel to set up 17 Ebola treatment centers with about 100 beds each, to train health-care workers and to distribute 50,000 personal protective kits that people can use in their homes.
As the country weathers the Ebola crisis, Ms. Roberts-Evans sees that people are recognizing the need for sanitation and disease-prevention. “The way I see it, having Ebola is bringing to light the communicable diseases [in the country]. We need to have good sanitation and preventive measures not just for Ebola. I see this as an opportunity to strengthen the education in health care within the schools and the community. … I hope the silver lining will be improved sanitation, improved awareness and improved procedures that will help stop the spread of many diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, Lassa fever, river blindness and malaria.”