When Ebola takes away the ability to touch, you have to reinvent the language of compassion.
MONROVIA, Liberia — Back in August, I was one of the first foreign journalists to land in Liberia to cover the Ebola outbreak. There weren’t very many of us willing to go to the world’s hottest hot zone, and there was a general global malaise about the disease, so there wasn’t very much information around about how to prepare.
As the story took off, colleagues called me and asked what they should do. I told them stupid things, like how I didn’t use a razor for a week before coming because I’m a klutz with a blade, and a slice on your leg or your neck (for the dudes who were calling) is a little Ebola door. I told them more useful things, like make sure you trim your nails so they don’t puncture your latex gloves — but not so short you expose the nail bed. Hands are at greatest risk for contact with the virus — we human beings put our hands everywhere, without thinking, all day long — and raw flesh at the tip of your fingers is basically a welcome mat for Ebola.
But the most right-on thing I told them was to break the rules. When foreigners come to less developed countries, there’s a slew of kindnesses we’re not supposed to indulge: Don’t give candy to kids. Don’t give coins to beggars. Don’t give cash to working-age men. Why? Because apparently the kids will turn into grabby little candy-munchers, and the beggars will stay dependent on your handouts, and any working-age man asking for “something small” is just going to piss it away on booze or women — or, if you were generous, both.
This is a fairly uncharitable interpretation of the developed world’s approach to the developing world’s poor, but it’s not far off. And the best advice I gave anyone who asked about what to do when coming here was to break those rules.
Bring gloves to give nurses you meet at clinics, even if you’re there for a story. Get small change to give to the kids who have been out of school for months and are selling ground nuts for pitiful sums on the side of road. Hell, give them candy. Violate all the principles of ostensibly good aid stewardship, because the good stewardship of the developed world didn’t get help here in time, and now everyone is dying around you.
Do not mistake all your giving for generosity. This is selfish. In the midst of Ebola, the kindest thing you can do for yourself is a tiny, ordinary kindness for someone else. Because you can’t touch anyone here, and when you are deprived of human touch, you can go a special kind of mad.
I’ve been back in Liberia this time for two weeks. Not being able to shake someone’s hand makes me feel like someone cut off my arm. Not being able to hug friends I haven’t seen in so long hurts. The disease inserts a physical distance between you and the world that no words can overcome, and that distance feels corporeal, like you’ve smacked into the end of a fat wooden pole keeping you away from the world.
We are trying small, as they say here — the motley we of foreigners and locals that Ebola has brought together in Liberia. In my hotel there is a friendly American general, two stars on his lapel. After a pleasant chat, we can’t shake hands, so I offer him my card, as if that’s a substitute for my humanity. He takes it, studies it, and bows. A two-star general in fatigues, whom every other person in the dining room is required to salute.
When I meet Dr. Moses Massaquoi, a key figure in the Ebola response and a Liberian who’s been working for decades to build his country’s health sector, he radiates compassion. We have a friend in common — a friend in common overpowers distance between strangers here — and if this had not been the time of Ebola, we would have shared a vigorous, smiling handshake, maybe even a hug.
Instead, he stands back, rests his hand over his heart, and holds eye contact just a little bit longer than feels normal.
Because the world where the doctor can’t welcome me literally with open arms, where a general opts to bow, this world is not normal.
The missing handshake also affects my work. I never appreciated just how much groundwork is laid in the way I extend my hand, the strength and length of the handshake. I never understood that it is qualitatively different to say, “A pleasure to meet you,” while you are holding on to a stranger. Touch transforms everything. Without it, I’ve also lost a skill.
I get to leave Liberia, and after a responsible period of self-monitoring, I get to go back to all those fantastically banal human things. And let me tell you, mine was good advice, because if you are stripped of basic human touch, and you don’t find a new language of compassion and connection and basic fucking humanity, you will go mad. A deep, difficult, people-will-study-it kind of mad.
But we who get to leave will never understand the real kind of mad that’s folded deep in this virus. The kind of mad that not being able to touch your dying mom makes you. The kind of mad losing 18 people in your home makes you. The kind of mad being shunned by your neighbors after you come home from the Ebola hospital makes you. Except for a brave and determined few Liberians, there isn’t even anyone talking about that kind of mad yet.
In August, almost everything in Liberia was need. Ambulances were needed to pick up bodies and beds were needed for the sick and labs were needed to sort Ebola patients from those with something else, and it felt like every last person in the country needed a pair of latex gloves, to say nothing of the personal protective “moon suits” that insulate health workers from the deadly virus ripping through their patients. And in the absence of resources to meet those needs, what there was in Liberia were bodies everywhere, waiting for some of the only people — the moon-suited burial teams — who are allowed to touch anyone. And even they are only allowed to touch the dead.
Now, there are beds and nurses and gloves and moon suits in Liberia. Not enough, and not everywhere in the country yet, to be sure. There are still people dying, but the numbers at the moment blessedly appear to be dropping off. There are also more and more people walking out of Ebola wards as survivors.
Neither circumstance means we’re anywhere close to done with Ebola. Surviving Ebola, ending the disease, that’s one thing, one damn difficult thing. But healing? That’s a long, long, long, long way off.