Liberian women lead Red Cross Ebola response

Published: 8 March 2015 6:00 CET

International Women’s Day 2015

By Anita Dullard, IFRC

From a small office at the Liberian Red Cross Society’s headquarters, a group of resourceful and pragmatic women plan direct and negotiate their National Society’s Ebola response. Public health specialists, Neima Candy and Roselyn Nugba-Ballah, are two of these women.

Both joined the operation during the Red Cross’ rapid scale up last July. Neima is the national Ebola coordinator, overseeing all health activities, bringing a solid working knowledge of the country’s health infrastructure, having worked with the Ministry of Health to restore it following Liberia’s wars. Still vibrant from finishing her Master’s degree, “I felt like I could bring that drive to this response and have a real impact.”

Roselyn supervises the safe and dignified burial teams, one of the most challenging pillars of the Ebola operation. “When I took on this role, there was so much to do. There were literally bodies in the street. I had to put up a warehouse, manage a fleet of vehicles, recruit, train and supervise our teams. And I had the really stressful task of taking multiple calls every day from the community to come and pick up bodies.”

Roselyn says Ebola’s impact on women is why she had to get involved in the response. It is what keeps her going. “The role of women in the outbreak is very cardinal and traumatic. We are care givers. Therefore we have to face the traumatic scene of losing our loved ones and risk our lives to care for them.”

The impact of the Ebola crisis on women in Liberia is far reaching. Women are also breadwinners and quarantine restrictions have had huge economic impacts.

Neima says market women have been hard hit. “Lofa county, in the northwest, was one of the worst affected by Ebola. Almost 50 per cent of the food that we eat here in Monrovia is grown in Lofa. Market women travel there to buy their goods to sell. But when the county borders were closed to stop the spread of Ebola there was no way women from Monrovia could cross the border to buy their goods. It hurt their income, and created a shortage of food.”

For both women the most difficult things to bear during this response have been personal. For Neima the loss of her friend, a fellow nurse, was the hardest day since the outbreak began. “My friend had looked after a patient who she suspected had Ebola. She kept telling us she wasn’t sure about that patient and she wasn’t in her full personal protective equipment. Then, about three or four days later, she started having a loss of appetite. Ebola symptoms followed. Then she died. I had lost other colleagues and mentors, but none as young and healthy as she was. It was so hard to believe. It really broke me down.”

For Roselyn, managing the unprecedented demands of her role and still finding the time to be a mother and a wife is a challenge. “I don’t spend much time with my family because every day is work. We’re through the worst of it, but I still go home tired.”

Despite the challenges of this emergency, both women feel there are positive things to learn, personally, and for Liberia. In the emotionally charged arena of safe and dignified burials, Roselyn says, “Importantly, I have learned how to build good personal relationships under real pressure, working and communicating with people from really different backgrounds and communities and I’ll take that with me into the future.”

Neima says, “For Liberia, it has been an eye opener. To see our weaknesses so starkly, we can build on this crisis with the new knowledge and systems we’ve had to develop. If we really push, we can build our strength in this area.”

And just how have they both kept turning up every day, months into the response? Neima sums it up perfectly, “Some days I felt like I should just stop this work and go to another country like Ghana. Stay there until Ebola is finished. But we only have a handful of public health practitioners in Liberia, and limited capacity. After ten years of war, our resources and health infrastructure were completely shattered. So if we leave, who will do the work? That is my courage. My country needs me. My community needs me.”