This article was originally published on Ebola Deeply.
By Kate Thomas
Otis Bundor, 29, is a contact tracer in West Point, a slum community of Monrovia, Liberia. West Point was quarantined by the Liberian government in August, after a spike in Ebola cases there. The community is no longer under quarantine, but Bundor’s work continues. Ebola Deeply spoke with him.
Mornings start early in West Point, Monrovia. I’m usually up by 4 a.m., preparing a light breakfast and making time for prayer. I live alone. My mom is in Gbarpolu county and my dad lives in Bomi. It’s important to ask for blessing and protection in this line of work. Contact tracing, especially in a slum community like West Point, is very, very difficult. It’s risky, and the team receives limited respect and compensation. By 7 a.m. I’ve bathed and am dressed for work. By 8 a.m. I’m at a contact tracing meeting, identifying new strategies for tracking cases and raising awareness.
I decided to become a contact tracer back in August. A staffer from the Ministry of Health got in touch to say they were looking for volunteers to strengthen efforts to eradicate Ebola. Initially, I had many doubts. Ebola is not a virus to play around with, and I had ambitions to live a long and pleasant life. I did not want to die at a young age.
But I do have some experience in community work, and in raising awareness. I’m a student at the University of Liberia and I have experience working as a peer educator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). I’m also the chairman of a social group called the United Conscious Grassrooters for Progressive Change. Even before the Ministry of Health approached me, my organization had already taken the initiative to distribute flyers to various groups and societies in West Point. Before the disease became an epidemic in Liberia, we were sensitizing residents about the dos and don’ts of Ebola. At one point during that period, we were driven away from some houses because people doubted what we were saying. They thought Ebola wasn’t real.
I had abundant knowledge about Ebola, and not sharing it would have been selfish, and might even have caused more people to die. If we don’t all help in whatever way we can, Ebola will creep to our doors and we will all perish. I joined the movement to kick Ebola out of Liberia, and started working for the Ministry of Health in July.
At the time, the Ministry of Health had limited resources. At our first meeting, we were given aprons and notepads – nothing more. We were asked to volunteer our services for two months at a time, with no information about how much we’d be paid. Later on, the organization More Than Me and its founder Katie Meyler began supporting this initiative. That re-motivated the contact tracing team, and we took part in another workshop and a training exercise. We were also given raincoats and boots.
After the 8 a.m. meeting, we go door-to-door in West Point, carrying out awareness-raising activities. Most days, we get turned away by someone. In such an instance, we give the dweller a moment to share his or her thoughts. Some people accept, but others throw constant insults at us, asking us to leave.
Otis Bundor with a chlorine dispenser in West Point.
Another of our duties is to look for sick people. At the beginning of the outbreak, people were afraid to tell us if their family members were sick. They worried about stigmatization, and they were frightened that their wife or sister or son would go to the hospital and never come back. Some people thought that health workers were injecting patients with poison. As a contact tracer, you need to have the intellectual prowess to convince doubters that Ebola is real.
Lunch in West Point is usually a popular dish like potato greens or rice and sauce. On weekends and special occasions, we like to eat pepper soup or palm butter. But weekdays are busy. In the afternoons, we might be out identifying visitors to the community. Visitors are welcome, but we need to know where they have come from, and why they are visiting during this epidemic. Has the visitor lost any family members recently? Have any of their family members or neighbors been very sick? These are some of the questions we ask. Lastly, we make a request for the cell-phone number of someone in the visitor’s home village; we often make follow-up calls.
When West Point was under quarantine, we had to search for dead bodies in every home. At first, family members hid bodies and buried them under the cover of darkness. This is one of the reasons that the disease became an epidemic. Attitudes changed only when people noticed that in almost all of the houses where someone died, another person later got sick. In one household, more than seven people died after they vehemently prevented contact tracers from entering.
At the beginning of the outbreak, things were hard economically. During the quarantine, we lacked essential life-saving items. For instance, we didn’t have safe drinking water, and we even lacked funds to buy medicine for other illnesses. West Point is a trading center that backs onto the ocean; people come to buy fish and other commodities, but customers couldn’t get here.
I went without food for some time. Eventually, I decided to ask friends outside of West Point for help. Many friends accepted my request for money, but the million-dollar question was, how could I get it? The community was under quarantine. With this question on my mind, I dressed in my long-sleeved shirt and fine trousers, and decided to break my own personal policy of avoiding crowded places. I ran into one of my tutorial students at the university, who is also a police officer. He was very kind and without hesitating, he got in his vehicle and went to collect the money from my friends. Those funds stabilized my well-being and even aided some people I met through my work who were in desperate need.
Living in a community affected by Ebola is challenging to your very existence. When the outbreak began, I did a lot of research on the internet about how to stay safe. One of the new rules I made is not to wear shoes in my bedroom. I never know if I might have mistakenly walked in the bodily fluids of an infected person. I also usually disinfect my footwear with chlorine when I come home from work.
I have been stigmatized by friends because of my work as a contact tracer. Friends outside of West Point stigmatize me too, just because I live in West Point. I’ve avoided people because I don’t want to be pushed away. I don’t want them to recognize me if I see them in the street. Since the Ebola epidemic began, I haven’t even cut my hair.
I work overtime most days, but at least now I get paid. It took the Ministry of Health six weeks to pay us at the beginning, but More Than Me paid us before the first month of our contract ended. After work I go to the store and buy the ingredients for dinner. As a student, I lived on cooked meals from my favorite chop shop, the Quick Board Shop. But I decided to give up this kind of lifestyle when I started working as a contact tracer. Now the only things I buy pre-made are cookies.
I’m usually in bed by 8 p.m., thinking about the day’s work and the challenges we still face. Liberia is seeing a reduction in Ebola cases, but our work doesn’t stop; we’re now focusing on reducing complacency. Many people have returned to the way they were before Ebola, which is a bad sign. The fight against Ebola will go on – until the disease is gone from Liberia for good.
Kate Thomas is a contributor to Ebola Deeply.