Blogging from Liberia: The Untold Stories Behind the Numbers

By Josh Balser

Josh Balser

Josh Balser is a member of Global Communities' Ebola Response Team in Liberia. As he supports the ongoiong efforts in Liberia, he will also be blogging and providing regular first-hand accounts of the situation on the ground and how communities across the country are living with Ebola. 

It is hard to believe that over a month has passed since I stepped off the plane to a tepid reception of surgical gloves and masks, and of course the requisite thermometer gun to the head – I still laugh at my own “don’t shoot” joke every time my temperature is taken. Even though very little time has passed, the emergency, any emergency really, requires an immediate headfirst dive into the details of a highly coordinated, tremendously complex response. Decisions are made with incomplete information and keeping up with the flurry of meeting minutes and reports can be a full-time job in and of itself.

Suffice it to say that my sleep schedule is a bit erratic and I lose hours of it thinking intently about how analysis of the data will help our team better react to a constantly shifting environment. The daily conversations quickly shuffle between the supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE) and better dead body counts and community engagement efforts in hard to reach places. Everything is a high priority and nothing can wait until tomorrow.

It can be easy to quickly dissociate from the work that is being done on the ground, but a couple of things keep bringing me back to the real heart of our interventions. 

putting on PPEI recently had the opportunity to witness firsthand a burial team in action. These individuals, community volunteers in most cases, are performing some of the most high-risk and important work in breaking the chain of transmission. The virus is most contagious in the body of a recently deceased victim, the source of many new infections. Therefore it is critical that the body be removed as quickly as possible to mitigate the risk of other family members contracting Ebola. Led by a highly qualified Environmental Health Technician, these teams often have to convince the community that their work will save lives and that it is likely the death was Ebola-related. I consider it a privilege to have observed these teams methodically extract the deceased from the home and safely bury it in the ground. Each member follows a synchronized, strict protocol for donning and doffing PPE to ensure their own safety so that they may keep serving their communities. They operate like a tactical special-ops unit, only they are regular members of the community like you or me. It is a captivating sight, one I observed with extreme caution, which exemplifies the daily sacrifice Liberians to protect their people.

View more photos taken by Josh: A Day with a Burial Team in Liberia.

It was my second week in country and I was again sifting through the burial data coming in from the 14 “rural” counties of Liberia. I had to manually enter handwritten logs into an Excel spreadsheet to be able to analyze our overall achievement and I was working against the report submission clock. In order to get the necessary information in, I was just taking the key statistics: date of death, county, sex, age, date of burial. Robotically filling in the info, I started to take a closer look. October 9, 2014 – Nimba County – Male – 36 years old – October 10. This isn’t a baseball slash line. It’s the short biography of a human being. More stories: a taxi driver transporting a suspected case to the Ebola Treatment Unit, 10/13/2014. Margibi County – Female – 52 years old – 10/13/2014. A mother caring for a sick child. October 29, 2014 – Grand Geddeh County – Male – 2 years old – 10/30/14. I wonder what the story is there.  But all of these biographies bring pause to everything we do and put a real story to the emergency that is playing out.

A lot has happened in the month since I arrived and our program’s reach has expanded as exponentially as the virus itself. It is encouraging to see some of those initial efforts finally realizing success and how quickly I have been able to grasp the enormity of it all. There is still much I don’t know, but I can truly say that I am learning something new every day. There is no doubt I will have more stories to share when this chapter of Liberia’s book is closed.