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MONROVIA, Liberia — Last September, Annie Johnson, 28, started to feel run-down. She was still nursing her young son, born only a month and a half earlier. Friends and family in her Monrovia suburb, New Kru Town, grew concerned that her symptoms sounded a lot like the ones that radio hosts warned could be signs of Ebola. New Kru Town was one of the most affected parts of the city, and residents were on edge and scared.
Neighbors urged her to report to a nearby hospital that was being used as a holding center for suspected Ebola patients.
“My family came and took the baby, and nobody would come around me. I felt bad,” she says, sitting in a concrete courtyard in front of the house she shared with her parents and younger brother. By the time she returned from a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) facility for Ebola treatment two weeks later, her son was dead. The other three members of her family soon followed.
She is one of thousands of Ebola survivors in Liberia whose lives were upended during this past year’s outbreak. Many lost close family members and loved ones. Some, like Johnson, are the sole members of their household who survived. They often struggle with depression, financial hardship and lingering health problems, and many say they have been left out of assistance programs set up by aid organizations. Liberia may soon reach the end of its Ebola outbreak, but the effects of the disease will reach far into the future for those who experienced it firsthand.The World Health Organization says that at least 4,408 people have survived the disease in Liberia, out of almost 10,000 who are known to have contracted it.
“When I sit in the house, I cry,” she says. “There’s nobody left. I was praying to God that one person would live, but they didn’t.”
Like many Ebola survivors, Johnson continues to suffer from health problems related to her bout with the illness. She has vision problems that she attributes to the chlorine spray used at MSF, and her joints often ache. Her father was the breadwinner in her family, and she now struggles to make ends meet, relying on her uncle.
She eventually met other survivors in New Kru Town, who comforted her through dark moments when she fell into despair over her lost family. Through them, she learned that Save the Children had given phones to some survivors with credit that could be used as cash. But when she tried to sign up, she was told that the program was over capacity. She says other survivors have been contacted by charities but that none have reached out to her.
What Johnson wants is a job or a loan so she can sell goods in the market. “Business is what will help me sustain myself,” she says.
Across town, down a sloping, dusty driveway that runs past a white mansion that was once the home of former President Charles Taylor, Dominick Kollie is returning home from his job at the MSF facility where Johnson was treated. He is also an Ebola survivor. He fell ill last August, after attending his aunt’s funeral with his mother and extended family. In all, 24 members of his family died of the virus.
Kollie, a soft-spoken and gentle 24-year-old, says he struggles with the emotional trauma of the losses he has suffered. He was close with his mother, who shuttled between Liberia and Ghana to buy and sell goods. When she became sick a few days after her sister’s funeral, he spent days trying to find a medical facility that would treat her.
The last time he saw his mother, she was being loaded into an ambulance. She clasped his hand, promised that she would be fine and told him to stay strong. Less than a week later, he received news that she had died along with his brother at the MSF facility. Soon Kollie was admitted to the same facility, where he spent two harrowing weeks recovering from Ebola.
“When I got the result that said I was Ebola-free, I wasn’t happy,” he says. “I didn’t want to survive because everybody had already died. Who was I coming home to?”
He was eventually hired by MSF to provide comfort and encouragement to Ebola patients and given a stipend of $350 per month, a relatively large salary in Liberia. Still, the loss of his mother has been hard for him. “This Christmas was the first one I’ve ever spent alone,” he says, tears streaming down his face. “That was when I really came to understand that she was gone.”
The recent closure of MSF’s Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia was a good sign for Liberia’s fight against the virus, but for Kollie it means that there will be tough times ahead.
Korlia Bonarwolo, 26, is the president of the Ebola Survivors Association of Liberia. At the same hospital where Johnson was held and Kollie last saw his mother, Bonarwolo was a physician’s assistant, and he became infected with Ebola after treating a colleague last June. He says he felt isolated after returning to his community, so he started reaching out to other survivors. Many of them were suffering from depression and physical impairments.
“It’s not easy for people to just move past this kind of thing, losing family members and not having support,” he says.
According to Bonarwolo, many survivors are falling through the cracks of programs that have been set up to assist them in getting back on their feet. He says that coordination among aid organizations is poor and that some survivors are given assistance from two or three charities while others receive none. “I don’t think the support is enough, and very little is being done by our government.”
‘When I got the result that said I was Ebola-free, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to survive because everybody had already died … This Christmas was the first one I’ve ever spent alone. That was when I really came to understand that [my mother] was gone.’
Once a week, a charity hospital run by Christian missionaries on the outskirts of Monrovia provides free health examinations for Ebola survivors. Other organizations and donors have provided periodic food aid, and after a series of delays, the World Health Organization is scheduled to disburse $85 per month to survivors for three months. Despite local and international support for children who were orphaned during the epidemic, caretakers say that there are gaps in funding for many of them to attend school and be integrated into their extended families.
Bonarwolo’s group has been critical of the Liberian government. He says that officials have tried to manipulate survivor groups and control the flow of international donations.
To him, the best way to address the emotional pain that people like Johnson and Kollie are struggling with would be to counsel and empower other survivors. “Somebody who has no experience of the crisis of the disease — how painful it is, how stressful, how depressive — may have the expertise, but they can’t really understand. They didn’t experience it.” He wants to target support for those who need it the most, saying that some of them need to be reminded that they’re not alone.
In response to concerns that charity handouts could establish dependency among survivors, his organization advocates for programs that would help them access credit to start businesses and gain skills that make them more attractive to employers. Liberia was already a difficult place to find work, and survivors face the twin challenges of an economy in recession and lingering stigma from their illness.
In New Kru Town, Johnson clutches two worn photographs. In one, her father stands proudly, wearing a suit, and in the other her smiling mother is draped in a brightly colored African lapa robe. She says she has haunting dreams about her father, whom she remembers as stern but loving.
“The ones that died, I’m not better than them. But God kept me alive for some reason. Maybe he wants me to do something for him.”