End Ebola Now: A Crisis We Cannot Ignore

Exactly eight months ago today, I was gearing up to teach a technology workshop at Girls Empowerment Summit Sierra Leone, a yearly summit that empowers and inspires young girls in Sierra Leone.  I was excited to show our girls that there are so many career options out there for them, which many never realised were available for women.  Little did I know, these plans would change drastically in the impending months.

Ebola struck West Africa with a vengeance – what started as an area that was finally rebuilding itself after brutal civil war was suddenly set back even further.  Schools in the region are now closed indefinitely, holding back a promising generation of West African youth.  An already fractured healthcare system has been devastated – people with basic, treatable illnesses are dying because there are simply no doctors or facilities to treat them.  Those with the virus are being turned away from treatment centers, as there are no beds left.  Over 3,700 children across the region have been orphaned by the virus and have nowhere to go.  Dead bodies are being reported in the streets, but the people who would come take them away are overloaded with other tasks.  

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Photo Credits: Michael Duff, AP

Talking to family and friends in Freetown has slowly become more and more eerie – streets usually filled with laughter and dancing are now empty.  Close proximity could spread the virus, thus silencing a very close-knit, happy and warm culture.  

This is what the Ebola Virus does – it preys on tight-knit cultures and spreads within them, because naturally one’s inclination would be to help a family member or friend in need.  Ebola goes much further than the virus itself.  It has stripped away people’s basic needs, and put a halt on programs and building efforts that were improving the area.   It has crippled the region economically.  Further than that, it has crippled Africa economically.  Many people have cancelled their vacations to the opposite side of the continent because of Ebola fears.  Would a person cancel a trip to Mexico because they heard someone in Canada was ill?  I didn’t think so.

The CDC estimated that by January, West Africa could reach up to 1.4 million cases of Ebola.  Seriously that is no number to ignore or take lightly.  1.4 million – that’s the size of a small country.  That’s an entire ethnic group.  By January, as in 2 months from now, an entire ethnic group’s worth of people could be wiped from this planet.

The Ebola outbreak has stigmatised those from the region, diminishing a vibrant, diverse group of people to a single virus. Ghana has reported no cases of the virus, yet a Ghanaian student was forcefully wrapped in plastic and quarantined at an airport because officials suspected he had Ebola.  A Sierra Leonean’s baggage was left abandoned in Brussels for days, because workers refused to touch her luggage.  Many of us can now say that our own family and friends tell people that they are from the Caribbean to avoid negative reactions.  This virus has affected us all, far and wide.  

Photo Credits: Michael Duff, AP

Photo Credits: Michael Duff, AP

I’ll be the first to tell you that, sure, at the moment I am not on the ground in West Africa, so no, I can’t give you a first-hand account of the crisis.  But, I can say that some of the happiest memories of my life have been there, in Freetown.  Us in the diaspora may not be there physically, but our hearts, our thoughts, our waking moments are now permeated with Ebola.  It has deeply struck us all.  And, while Western media doesn’t always show the crisis that is happening overseas, I feel it is our duty as West Africans abroad to spread the word, to help where we can, and to serve as a bridge between the two worlds.  We are the only ones uniquely qualified for this job.

In July, noticing a need to spread correct information throughout the region, myself and four other Sierra Leonean-Americans in the entertainment industry said ‘let’s do something about it.’  Within 3 days and with no budget, we filmed a PSA for the region intended to dispel rumors and spread facts.  Within a couple days of posting the video online, we had reached several thousand views, also getting broadcast in the region.  We were getting messages of appreciation, and our logo was starting to show up as people’s profile pictures on social media.  We had co-founded the End Ebola Now movement, aimed at disseminating accurate and useful information to the region and worldwide, and it was refreshing to see that we weren’t the only ones who felt the way we did.  Everybody wanted a change, and wanted it now.

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Writer Stephanie Filo Jones (Second from the right) and the End Ebola Now Team: Adetokumboh M’Cormack, Irene Edwards, Nzinga Blake, Stephanie Filo, Shalimar Zahra.

Seeing what has happened in the last few months, we knew we also needed to raise funds and awareness where there weren’t yet funds and awareness.  We did a lot of research, which led us directly to Emergency USA, an organisation that provides free quality health care to war-torn and poverty-stricken areas.  We learned that, due to the Ebola crisis, they are running the only fully-functioning hospital in the entire nation of Sierra Leone.  Just let that fact settle in for a moment.  They have also opened an Ebola treatment center near Freetown.  They need assistance, and they need it fast.

Viral challenges have been circulating on social media, but none have emphasised the need to donate to specific organisations on ground who are doing a tremendous job in the fight against Ebola.  From here, the End Ebola Now team came up with our latest campaign: the #ShakeEbolaOff Challenge.  Via social media, people have 48 hours to show off their dance moves, or donate to Emergency USA at www.endebolanow.com (nominating others to participate as well, of course).  As our rich culture of dance and laughter has been muted by this virus, this serves as a way to bring our culture back, and to bring funds and awareness from around the world to where it is needed most: the frontlines.  Every single penny donated on our site goes directly to Emergency USA, so that they can continue with the fantastic work that they do.  I am proud to say that our campaign has picked up traction, garnering notable celebrity and media support, and I hope that this trend continues, as there is a lot of work left to be done.

We aren’t the only ones passionate about bringing an end to this outbreak.  Although the subject of Ebola is grim, I’ve been very inspired to see various other campaigns also spring up in the midst of this crisis.  Anti-stigmatisation movements have started to appear on social media.  National Ebola Response Recruitment Drive SL, run by Sierra Leone locals, works hard to support the recruitment process for treatment centers on ground.  Power Women 232, a group of women professionals, delivers much-needed care packages to Ebola survivors and healthcare workers.  The Visão Foundation and Girls Empowerment Summit Sierra Leone are developing educational packets to distribute to West African youth while they are out of school.  The list goes on and on, and if that isn’t a testament to the heart and passion of West Africans, I don’t know what is.  We are a diverse group of people filled with spirit; we will not be silenced, and we will not be diminished to a single virus.

Much like you wouldn’t fix a broken leg with a bandage, the problem needs to be addressed at its source.  With cases of Ebola now reaching other countries, people are starting to see the gravity of the situation.  It doesn’t matter where you are from, Ebola does not discriminate.  We are a global community, and this virus is capable of spreading elsewhere if it is not eradicated at its source.  Some more help is reaching the area, but let’s not forget an important fact: the UN has said that in order to defeat this outbreak, West Africa will need at least 20 times the support it is already getting.  Help needs to come from all angles.

The average person doesn’t have millions of dollars to donate to large NGO’s, but that doesn’t mean they can’t donate an affordable amount where it is needed most.  Don’t feel like dancing for #ShakeEbolaOff?  Then pay it forward by donating and challenging others to do the same.  Support these various organisations that are making a huge difference.

If the millions of people who got #Ebola trending on Twitter were to donate a dollar or spend just a minute sharing an Ebola-related initiative, imagine where we could be.  Despite alarming statistics, there is resilience and there is hope.  There is still a long way to go, but with a collective effort, we can and will fight this.  Like the African proverb says:  “If you go alone, go fast. If you go together, go far!”

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Ebola Survivor Mariama. Photo Credits: Michael Duff, AP

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