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Campaign Rallies Resume In Liberia, Raising Uncertainty Over Ebola Risk

Nov 30, 2014
Originally published on December 1, 2014 10:54 am

In Liberia, the number of new cases of Ebola is going down, but the risk has not been eliminated. To help contain the disease, schools are set to be closed until March.

But a national Senate election, which was postponed once, is now set for mid-December. That means campaigning — which means crowds.

Back in August and September, when a hundred people were getting Ebola a day, Monrovia was a ghost town. Ebola treatment units were full and regular hospitals were closed. Some people died in the streets. A lot of people stayed home.

Now, hundreds of people are heading out to those big campaign rallies. For the first time in a long time, there's a reason to party in Monrovia.

Still, many people are hanging back, and say they're trying to follow the rules in the time of Ebola: Keep your distance; no touching.

Ophelia Gaga says Ebola is all her family talks about, especially how and when to wash your hands in chlorinated water, which kills Ebola.

"Before in the bathroom, you wash your hands, before eating you wash your hands," she says. "Everything concerning me, I wash my hands day and night."

Washing your hands, day and night; Gaga says she's sick of washing hands. She says she's happy to just relax and dance.

Munah Krah is dancing, too. She is a member of the opposition party, which is sponsoring the event. She says she is not afraid of Ebola.

"Because I know I am protected by God," she says.

Krah believes even if she weren't washing her hands, she'd still have divine protection — but, at the same time, she is washing her hands.

While those on the periphery seem cautious, looking deeper into the crowd, you see people flirting, hugging and touching. You also start to hear a lot of different theories about Ebola.

Some people say the fact that they're even having elections means Ebola is gone.

"If they ... knew that Ebola was still in this country, I believe that no one gonna have elections in Liberia," says Marcy Taylor.

The government closed schools and markets and said no public gatherings. But now they're allowing public gatherings for elections, so some say that must mean Ebola is gone.

A government spokesman did not return calls to talk about this change of policy.

One thing that is known is that postponing the election any further would go against the constitution. Journalists here say no party wants to be criticized for doing that.

Walter Cole, who just graduated high school, says he follows the news that Ebola treatment units, or ETUs, are still being built around Liberia.

"I still believe that Ebola is still in Liberia," Cole says. "Because if there was no Ebola in Liberia, they would not be building ETUs all around town."

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says she's hoping for no new Ebola cases by Christmas — but many health officials say the president's goal is too optimistic.

Cole, for his part, says he had hoped to go to trade school this fall. But now he's just sitting at home, waiting for schools to open again.

In the meantime, the election parties are getting bigger every day.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said she's hoping for no new Ebola cases by Christmas. The number of new cases in Liberia is going down, but many health officials say the president's goal is just too optimistic. Schools are said to be closed until March, but a national Senate election, which was postponed once, is now set for mid-December. That means campaigning, which means crowds. NPR's Kelly McEvers sent this report from a rally in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Back in August and September, when a hundred people were getting Ebola a day, Monrovia was a ghost town. Ebola treatment units were full. Regular hospitals were closed. People were dying in the streets, and a lot of people stayed home. Now...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

MCEVERS: Hundreds people are heading out to big campaign rallies. For the first time in a long time, there's a reason to party in Monrovia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AT A RALLY)

MCEVERS: The first people we meet are hanging back. They say they're trying to follow the rules in the time of Ebola - keep your distance, no touching. I ask Ophelia Gaga if her family talks about Ebola. She says it's all they talk about, especially how and when to wash your hands in chlorinated water. It kills Ebola.

OPHELIA GAGA: Before in the bathroom, you wash your hands. Before eating you wash your hands. Everything concerning me, I wash my hands day and night.

MCEVERS: Day and night, before you go to the bathroom, before you eat. Ophelia says she's sick of washing hands. She's just happy to relax.

So you say better to not worry...

GAGA: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...And relax and dance.

GAGA: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Munah Krah is dancing, too. So why did you come today?

MUNAH KRAH: To jubilate.

MCEVERS: Munah is a member of the opposition party, which is sponsoring the event.

Do you think about it? Are you scared about Ebola?

KRAH: I'm not afraid of Ebola.

MCEVERS: Why not?

KRAH: Because I know I'm protected by God. So if I wash my hand, I know that I'm protected by God.

MCEVERS: She knows she is protected by God. How do you know?

KRAH: I know I'm a child of God. I'm a priest and I believe in it. I believe that if when making the people (unintelligible) protected from Ebola.

MCEVERS: Really? So even if you didn't wash your hands, God would protect you?

KRAH: God would protect me. Well, actually, (unintelligible) I'm still washing my hands.

MCEVERS: Right. So you're doing both. You have both.

KRAH: Yeah.

MCEVERS: You have hand washing and God. That's good.

So that's what the ladies on the periphery have to say. But if you look deeper into the crowd, you see people flirting, hugging, touching. And we start to hear a lot of different theories about Ebola. Some people say Ebola doesn't exist at all. Marcy Taylor comes out to tell me and our interpreter her theory.

MARCY TAYLOR: (Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: She believes that Ebola is over and gone - that if there was still Ebola, they wouldn't have an election.

MCEVERS: They wouldn't have an election, right?

Turns out a lot of people think this. The government closed schools and markets and said no public gatherings. But now they're allowing public gatherings for elections, so they say that must mean Ebola is gone.

We tried several times to reach a government spokesman to ask him about this, but he did not return our calls. One thing we do know is that postponing the election any further would go against the constitution. Journalists here say no party would want to be criticized for doing that.

Walter Cole just graduated high school. He says he follows the news that Ebola treatment units, or ETUs, are still being built around Liberia.

WALTER COLE: My opinion is that I still believe that Ebola is still in Liberia. Because if there was no Ebola in Liberia, they would not be building ETUs all around town. So those who are saying that Ebola is not here is because they are not monitoring news. They might as well say Ebola is not here.

MCEVERS: Walter says he had hope to go to trade school this fall. But now he's just sitting at home waiting for schools to open again. Before that happens, the election parties are getting bigger every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AT A RALLY)

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.