Try, if you can, to imagine that you’re a 17-year-old girl.
You live with your family in the capital city of one of the world’s poorest countries. It’s a country scarred by conflict: until you were five, it was a war-zone. A dozen years later the country is at war again, only this time the adversary is a deadly disease.
Lately, this disease has been moving faster than efforts to contain it. Things are now so bad that your government has declared a state of public emergency: school is cancelled, farms lie dormant, markets are deserted, food prices are increasing, jobs are being lost, entire districts are under quarantine.
Your mother is a nurse in a government hospital: it’s by no means an easy place to work at the best of times, in a country with poorly-resourced healthcare services and a life expectancy of just 45 years. Now that it’s the worst of times, the occupational hazards are legion.
One day, your mum gets sick with malaria-like symptoms. Fever, vomiting, diarrhoea. She needs a doctor, so you hail an okada (a motorbike taxi) to take her to hospital. She’s so weak that you have to carry her on the back of the bike as it weaves precariously through traffic.
The hospital runs tests. Three days later the diagnosis comes: positive for the Ebola virus. Probably infected by a patient at work – it happens a lot these days. Your mum is in a bad state and needs to be moved. Tragically, a lack of free beds and ambulances means she doesn’t make it to an Ebola treatment center on time. She dies.
Your world collapses, but there’s not enough time to grieve: a week later, you develop similar symptoms. You’re admitted to an Ebola treatment center in a critical state. Your appetite disappears and you feel incredibly weak. You can‘t keep down the oral rehydration tablets they give you. As the people around you pass away, the sight of their bodies lingers long after the corpses are removed. The air is thick with the stench of despair.
Eventually you start to recover: you’re one of the fortunate ones. When you finally get the all-clear, the relief and happiness is indescribable. You’re a survivor, and you have the certificate to prove it.
After being discharged you return to your community, elated, only to be crushed by the news that three more close relatives have died while you’ve been in the treatment centre – your sister, your uncle, your father. You’ve been orphaned in the space of a few weeks.
Meanwhile, you’re shocked to discover that your once bustling home is now an empty shell. Its entire contents have been burnt as part of infection control measures. Ebola didn’t just bring death to your loved ones, it also brought death to the few precious things you ever owned: furniture, clothes, documents, photographs.
Determined to carry on, you begin trying to piece your life back together, together with your two surviving siblings. With your parents gone, money is hard to come by. To make matter worse, you start to notice local people avoiding you. Once friendly faces now avoid eye contact, no longer willing to get too close. They are afraid of you. Your status as a survivor becomes a source of stigma.
This is what it means to survive the Ebola virus. It’s a story based on the experiences of 17-year-old Geraldine Sia Lamin, as told to my colleague earlier this year. Geraldine, who lives in eastern Freetown, Sierra Leone‘s capital city, said: “The whole month was full of tears.”
“My life was very different before,” she added. “Life was good: I had good parents and I was going to school. There was peace and joy at home. Now it’s lonely. We live alone and have to support ourselves. People are still scared of us: although some accept us, the stigma is still there. But I am a survivor and I thank God for my life. I still carry on, there is no way to change the past now.”
Geraldine is one of hundreds of Ebola survivors who has received food, household items and other practical support through Christian Aid’s Ebola Crisis Appeal. Her tragic story has been echoed across communities, towns and cities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea for the past 12 months.
12 whole months. This week marks a year since the World Health Organisation officially confirmed that an Ebola outbreak had begun in Guinea. A year since I sat in my office in Freetown reading an email from my manager that sounded the alarm about a little-known virus at large in the neighbouring country.
Back then, who could have anticipated the scale of what was to come? Now, around 25,000 people have now been infected and over 10,000 people have died.
And it’s still not over. Although the rate of infection is slowing, case numbers fluctuate on a daily basis in Sierra Leone, so there is no room for complacency. That’s why the Sierra Leone government is enforcing a three-day ‘lockdown’ this weekend; approximately 2.5 million people living in hotspot areas will be confined to their homes in an effort to eradicate the outbreak once and for all.
Despite all this, it’s sometimes too easy to forget this situation, particularly when Jeremy Clarkson’s shenanigans seem to attract to more column inches. But now is not a time to forget: it’s a time to remember. Since the last moments of a battle are often the hardest fought, organisations like Christian Aid can’t rest just yet. Much remains to be done to stop the virus and support those caught up in its grip: people just like Geraldine.
“I will still carry on,” said the 17-year-old, who now dedicates her time to working for a local Ebola awareness-raising project. If, after all that’s happened, Geraldine can still find the strength of mind to ‘carry on’, then so must we. We must carry on giving, carry on caring, carry on praying, carry on remembering. Lest we forget.
(Photograph: A d’Unienville / Christian Aid).