As Ebola gently, but quickly and catastrophically moves through West Africa, the Africa Mercy sits and waits. Its people sit and wait. Ebola isn’t the only thing stopping us either. Our ship needs some critical maintenance work to be completed in the next week. In the midst of attempting to keep busy, things surface that haven’t been done for years that would strengthen and improve our hospital ship for the future. Extra maintenance work, cleaning, tidying, organising, reworking polices and handbooks and all the other little things that get missed or neglected in the everyday pulse of this life.
We should have bashed through the big blue Atlantic sea already and right now we would be settled in to our perfectly placed dock space in Cotonou, Benin. I was looking forward to seeing our Advance Team in their African fabric welcoming us to the country they had been preparing for our arrival. But it was not to be, and that hurts. On the 8th of August at 2am I was the duty nurse. Someone paged me and so off I went to see if they were OK. I returned to my cabin and checked the news. I saw the headline and dropped to my knees in tears. Ebola in Nigeria! That changed everything.
The Africa Mercy was originally meant to go to Guinea but as the news unravelled and more and more people died of Ebola it was clear that we couldn’t go. We bring hope to sick people and this floating tin box would be a magnet. People would flock to our screening days with a virus that we simply are not capable to contain or treat. We are a surgery ship not an infectious disease unit. And that hurts. I wish with every fibre of my being that we could just go and help, but the reality is this ship would be a vector for a deadly disease and not triumphant in stopping it.
Other options were considered early on in the year and after many meetings the management team decided to go elsewhere, further away from the epicentre that is Guinea Conakry. Benin was announced to be our next destination with little time to prepare. Our Advance Team went and got everything ready for us. Ebola spread so rapidly that now our going to Benin is also in question. Nigeria had confirmed cases in Lagos, only 100km from the port in Benin where we should already be docked by now. The border between Nigeria and Benin is not like a border between Mexico and the US or between France and Germany. Yes there are the same wiggly red lines on a map but does that really mean anything? This border is more like the kind of border where you pick your goat from the butcher in Benin and cycle it home to have for dinner with your family in Nigeria. So you can guess that it wouldn’t be an effective method for stopping a virus like Ebola. This virus has no borders and it doesn’t stop at the invisible red wiggly lines.
And so the Africa Mercy sits and waits. Waits for Plan D whilst we reflect on the passing of plans A, B and C. The plan changes day by day but the current plan is to sail somewhere next Friday. One month after our original sail date. But the truth is we still don’t know where we are going.
And as all of this is going on – the uncertainty, the confusion and the chaos – there are people at home waiting for a call from Mercy Ships to say rebook your flights to …. an unknown destination. There are people all over the world that have rented out their houses, sold their cars and given up their jobs to come and serve, but just like our big white ship they must also sit and wait.
And while those people sit and wait and think about the ship, its’ crew keep on working and do the same. But my thoughts are consistently overshadowed by the hundreds and thousands of people affected by Ebola. Today the death count is 1552. WHO predict this figure is underestimated by 25%-50% and that as many as 20,000 people will be affected before this is over, maybe more. And now we see an unrelated outbreak in DRC. There are 80 people involved who came in to contact with a pregnant woman who butchered some unlucky dead bush meat. Everyone that treated her along with her family died and many are still in isolation.
The quarantine zones are the main way of stopping the virus. The thought of sending military to enforce cutting off a certain village or town is encouraging as hopefully it will stop the spread of Ebola. And more often than not it works. But when you think about what that actually means … it means that a whole community is cut off from everything, food supplies, family, running water maybe and perhaps their jobs with the theory that who ever lives lives and whoever dies dies. Could you imagine if that happened at home? If Manchester, or Portsmouth or Guildford was suddenly cut off from everything else. If soldiers and tanks stopped you going out and things coming in for 21 days. You just sit and wait for all those who are infected to die and hope to God you are not in the death count of tomorrow. Imagine the devastation on the community.
Ken Isaacs from samaritans purse said in his statement from a few weeks ago “It was not until two Americans contracted the virus that the world sat up and paid attention”. Is that really what it takes for the world to notice that people are dying? It makes me angry that if you have a British passport it’s perfectly acceptable to rescue you and take you to the best medical facilities you can find to be treated, regardless of the massive infection control risks to the rest of the world: But if you don’t have a passport then you just wait and hope that you are more than just a number when tomorrow comes.
This is bigger than Mercy Ships next destination or delay this is Africa’s nightmare and what our manager has described as Africa’s 9/11.
Please Pray for Ebola.