“The hardest thing I’ve had to do was tell my friends and family in Liberia that I had to leave, because it wasn’t safe for me to be there,” recalls Matthew Arnold. The Ohio native was in Liberia with the Peace Corps from 2010 to 2012, one of the first Peace Corps volunteer cohorts to go back to the country after a 14-year civil war. After his first year at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, he arranged to spend summer 2014 fulfilling his practicum requirements as a trainer of new Liberia Peace Corps volunteers.
“I was excited to go back and see how things had improved. The streets were muchbetter, there were street lights in the capitol, and you never saw that before,” he says. The 29-year-old had planned to spend 10 weeks training Peace Corps volunteers in malaria prevention strategies, such as using bed nets, and the culture of Liberia, a country of about 4.4 million people. He also looked forward to seeing old friends and the people in Liberia he considered family.
Towards the end of July, however, he noticed changes around the Peace Corps facilities. Basins or buckets of chlorinated water appeared at entryways, and people were asked to wash their hands leaving and entering buildings. By August 1, 2014, the word went out that the 300 Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were to be evacuated because of Ebola.
“Liberia is about the size of Tennessee, but the roads are so bad that it could take two days to travel from the most remote corners to the capitol,” he says. People flew out when they arrived in the capitol and came home to 21 days of voluntary self-monitoring for signs of fever or sickness.
Although there had been a few confirmed cases in the community Arnold volunteered in, he monitored his temperature, but wasn’t worried.
“I wasn’t dealing with any sick people. The majority of people who have gotten it have been healthcare workers or family with direct contact. I was doing malaria education, and most of my work was with Peace Corps staff,” he says.
But when he sees the constant news of Ebola in West Africa, or people find out that he was in Liberia, he feels sad.
ne really knows about because it was founded by free American slaves,” says Arnold. And he worries that after all the hard work the Liberians did to recover from civil war, the Ebola outbreak is a huge set back.
He also worries about his friends. He knows of a few who have died in the outbreak. Catching Ebola is a concern, but one of the results of the outbreak is that people who need care for other conditions, such as malaria (malaria kills 35 per 100,000 people in Liberia each year, according to WHO) find that the hospital beds are already full, he says. A young man he knew as a student when he was in the Peace Corps is now living in the capitol, but his education is on hold because all the schools are closed, says Arnold.
In contrast, Arnold is in school, trying to finish up his public health graduate degree so he can put his public health skills and knowledge to use. Outbreak or no outbreak, he hopes to go back to Liberia.
“I will go back when I graduate in May. Right now, I just feel helpless. I am qualified to help, but I have two semesters to finish,” he says. So he continues to support his friends by phone, reminding them to be careful and prevent Ebola, as he looks forward to being with them again.
Malaria factsheet: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en/
Malaria in Liberia: http://www.who.int/malaria/publications/country-profiles/profile_lbr_en.pdf