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“May you live in interesting times” – Lagos and Ebola

Macoco - Lagos' village on stilts

Macoco – Lagos’ village on stilts

The first stop for passengers streaming off flights into Lagos is now a lectern manned by a friendly young woman. She asked me to shift my hair so she could aim her hand-held thermometer at my forehead. She looked at the display, smiled and waved me off.

That was the only difference I noticed on arriving at the airport. After weeks of reading the news about the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, I had expected something more… dramatic. To be honest, I was relieved: the airport experience is chaotic at best. As per usual, I switched on my most patient mood, greeted each official with a bright ‘hello Sir’, and made jokes with the security guys who tried, with mixed results, to herd bewildered incomers through the incomprehensible system of checkpoints. True to Nigerian form, everyone wished me a warm welcome home.

From what I can gather from Nigerians, a few things have changed. The public information campaign has been successful and everyone is aware of the risks. Rubbing in hand sanitizer is now as a common a gesture as texting on mobile phones. ‘No one shakes hands anymore,’ says Mable describing how awkward greetings have become. ‘It’s not our way.’ Even in her village where no Ebola has been seen, physical contact is avoided. It’s amazing to see how fast we humans adapt. Wouldn’t it be weird if in 50 years a kid watching an old movie asks his Mom, ‘why did people use to do that shake hands thing? What was that about?’

Sadly, Ebola seems to have increased distrust among people. The lady who does my nails wears gloves to protect herself – and her clients. If anyone is at risk it is someone who takes public transport and goes from house to house touching people’s hands and feet. Hospitals are suddenly wary of patients who come in with a fever, which is a huge issue since the early symptoms of Ebola are quite similar to malaria. Likewise, people are hesitant to go to hospitals in case they get quarantined for 21 days for no reason.

Nigerians are frightened. They are on the front line of a war with an invisible enemy. The current outbreak would not have affected Nigeria at all had it not been for the arrival of a Liberian diplomat looking for better care than in his native country. He took (so far) 6 people with him to his death. No new cases have developed in Lagos though the disease has spread to Port Harcourt via a doctor who treated the diplomat. In total there have been 7 deaths and 10 recoveries while 16 people remain under surveillance.

No new cases have been reported in the city. Lagosians are tentatively breathing a sigh of relief though everyone remains vigilant – boarders are porous in our globalised planet. A South African woman was detained at the airport with Ebola-like symptoms (she has since tested negative). She was in transit from Morocco to her home country. “Why does everyone come through Lagos?” asked Monica as she painted my nails. Tja, that’s the problem with having one of the continent’s major airports. Will viruses like this affect international travel: will we gradually throw up a modern equivalent of medieval walls around our nations?

For expats in Nigeria, the chance of coming into contact with anyone with Ebola is estimated to be extremely low. But all schools, public and private, have been closed. They are scheduled to reopen on Sept 22. So international schools have arranged remote learning programmes for the children of expatriate families. It must be tough on parents to suddenly become full-time teachers. It is a big problem for teenagers whose grades matter for their future education. And what happens if schools don’t open on schedule? Do parents try to find space for them in schools at home or do they stay and wait it out?

The people of Guinea and Sierra Leone and in particular those in  Liberia, already battered by decades of senseless civil war, are truly suffering the worst possible outcome of this cruel virus. So far, we Lagosians are ‘lucky’ to be only living through an interesting time. ‘Interesting’ generally means intellectually stimulating but in practice the expression points to the need to adapt to changing, and in this case life-threatening, circumstances. May Nigerians continue to be successful in their battle to eradicate Ebola and may the world aid those who are losing the fight.

One Response to ““May you live in interesting times” – Lagos and Ebola”

  1. Jo Parfitt says:

    How fascinating to find out exactly how you are affected by this insidious disease. I am really sorry you are having go to such lengths to protect yourselves but delighted there are things you can do. I have been thinking of you.

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