When the WHO declared Liberia free of Ebola, our first thought as an organization was a sense of relief for the people of the country, who can now breathe just a little easier. We then thought of our Liberia Country Director, Jolene Mullins, and our entire Liberia team, who have been working since day one of the outbreak. Jolene, in her continued. tireless spirit, wrote a love letter to Liberia, a country she has worked in for many years – truly as a labor of love.
I wasn’t in Liberia when she was declared Ebola Free. I was in Washington DC and San Diego for meetings, rounding up support, and setting strategy as we were beginning year two of the fight against Ebola. Then, in an instant we didn’t see coming but had hoped for since the work began, the planning turned to celebrating. Liberia was Ebola Free. The very goal we had all worked day and night on, poured our hearts and souls into, was reached.
I received countless emails praising our work, providing words of thanks to PCI and my team, and even reminders that this is a time to celebrate – a reality I now understand and enter into cautiously.
The flight home to Liberia was quiet last week. Everyone seemed to share this cautious, celebratory feeling, not sure what to make of this particular trip, which was so different from all others over the past year. Liberians returning home after 20 years, aid workers returning from trips for meetings and vacations, Peace Corps staff retuning to prepare for previously evacuated volunteers.
But the excitement took hold when we started the descent into Monrovia. The energy was palpable, tactile. The conversations loud and boisterous.
As we entered the terminal, many people started to avoid the hand washing stations, stating that Liberia is Ebola FREE. However, they were severely reprimanded by the immigration authorities that reminded all of us to wash our hands. A hard lesson learned, but one I hope will continue indefinitely – particularly as we’ve seen the lowest rates of diarrheal disease in years due to all the hand washing to prevent the spread of Ebola!
There was a bit of shock when I exited the baggage claim area as members of my team ran up and hugged me. I had become so used to the fact that touching was banned. We hadn’t been permitted to shake hands, let alone hug, since June of last year. It was wonderful! Each embrace has now become a reminder of the hard work over the past year, and each is a small celebration of victory.
Now we are back to the work at hand, continuing the development of Liberia that was interrupted by Ebola. Rebuilding a damaged health system, fighting outbreaks of measles, helping families and communities become food secure. All are issues we were dealing with before Ebola and issues where attention is still needed.
We begin transitioning the emergency response behemoth that was set up to address a deadly infectious disease to a system that will protect Liberia and the region permanently. We also remain cautious as our neighboring countries continue to fight Ebola, and we monitor the ebb and flow of their epidemics.
The fight against Ebola was perhaps the most important work I have ever done in my life. The range of emotions I felt in the past week, and the past year, are sometimes overwhelming. I am proud to work with such inspiring people, honored to serve, saddened by loss, and worried about our future. Liberia is Ebola Free…for now. The most important part, and hardest, will be to keep her that way.