As a missionary in Ebola-struck Liberia, I was terrified this Easter

An Ebola sensitisation campaign painted on a wall in the Liberian capital Monrovia (CNS)

A lot has been said about the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa to the point that most people are now experts on the subject. Anybody who can read newspapers and listen to news knows that the Ebola virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the first outbreak was recorded in 1976, that it is characterised by massive bleeding and destruction of internal tissues, is highly contagious, can be contracted through contact with infected bodily fluids and has a high fatality rate.

I visited Nigeria from Liberia in the thick of the Ebola crisis and was impressed that many people knew about Ebola better than me, who survived and thrived in the midst of its devastation. Some Ebola savants set out to lecture me on how infectious and incurable the disease was. One Nigerian professor even told me it was airborne. “If one stayed in a community where an Ebola patient lived,” he enthused, “one might get it by just breathing.” Luckily, the professor did not know I had just returned from Liberia.

Ebola entered Liberia from Guinea in early April 2014. Everybody was scared but nobody was surprised: the borders between Liberia and Guinea are colonial and not tribal borders; the people do not respect them. Thus, when we heard that Ebola disease was in Guinea, everybody knew that it was a matter of time before it entered Liberia.

However, some elements in society did not believe that Ebola was in town. They went about shaking hands, hugging the sick and touching dead bodies. As a result, the virus spread like wildfire. “This too shall soon pass away” was what people around us kept saying. “We survived the war; we shall also survive this one.” Their confidence rubbed off on us missionaries and we kept working in their midst in spite of calls and pleas from our families and friends to come home.

Then Fr Miguel Pajares and Brother Patrick died. Both were members of the Society of St John of God. They ran the only Catholic Hospital in Monrovia. Within the same period, 13 nurses working in the government hospital in Kakata died from it. Some of them were my parishioners.

It then dawned on us that the epidemic was dangerously close. We felt it was about time we raised our guards. We began to avoid every action, pastoral and social, that brought us into direct physical contact with people. Baptism, anointing of the sick and laying on of hands were suspended. Sick calls too were put on hold. We resorted to praying for sick people on phone.

We carried on with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, though we ensured that the penitent maintained what we considered a reasonable distance. We also took the washing of hands seriously: a person wishing to enter the Church compound had to have his or her hands washed with chlorinated water provided by us before being allowed in.

Ash Wednesday was a real challenge. I was scared in the two weeks leading up to Lent. I rummaged through the pages of the liturgical rites to see if I could find a way to circumvent the signing of ash. There was none. Thus, on the first day of Lent, I just had to sign people on the forehead with ash. Then I braced myself for the worst. Fortunately, my greatest fear never came to pass.

The next challenge was on Easter Vigil when I had to baptise 27 people among whom were two Ebola survivors. I quarantined myself after the whole Easter ceremony.

The outbreak of Ebola virus has really impinged on pastoral work. Many people, scared of attending any public gathering, have altogether stopped coming to Church. Church meetings outside Holy Mass are almost non-existent, and people are reluctant to have even the priest come over to their homes. Sometimes one has to pray from a distance and watch as a parishioner dies without the Last Rites. Infants born have to live without being baptised for the time being.

Surprisingly, the people have learnt to smile in the midst of the gloom. We as missionaries still continue to minister to the people, giving them hope that God still loves them, Ebola notwithstanding.

We also work in league with health workers to educate the people on the early detection and prevention of the virus. Words of encouragement and hope are not lacking, neither are fervent prayers to God for divine intervention.

The resilience of the people in the face of Ebola is touching. One could see a certain defiance in the attitude of the people to this agent of death. I have to come to learn that no matter how dire any situation is, human life will always find a way to thrive. This is a lesson I could never have learnt in the classroom.

Fr George Okoro MSP is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul of Nigeria. He serves in Liberia