How to Cover Ebola

A Report from a Journalist in Sierra Leone

27 November 2014

Every day, articles about Ebola are published. But what is it like to be one of the journalists covering the epidemic in one of the infected countries? We asked Sheriff Bojang Jr., freelance journalist, who went to Freetown for West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR, based in Dakar) this autumn. One striking sentence: 'nothing has ever been the same' since he got back.

[WADR will be one the local media attending our third #HackAgainstEbola in Dakar mid-January]

How did you prepare your mission in Sierra Leone?

I went to Sierra Leone to cover Ebola from 20 September to 6 October. My trip was a bit prompt. So in terms of preparation, I contacted the regional Red Cross in Dakar, told them I was heading to Sierra Leone and ask for some advice and requested that they put me in touch with the Red Cross team in Sierra Leone so I could have access to the the Ebola treatment centers under their responsibility. They put me in touch with the team on the ground and through that, I had unlimited access to Red Cross activities and sites. As part of preparations, I also spent some time on the internet searching for safety tips in order to protect myself from Ebola and things like that, and of course as much info as possible about Ebola and story ideas related to the virus.

How could you enter in the infected country? Was it difficult?

Before I left Dakar for Freetown, my office had some difficulties getting me an air ticket. The secretary tried several flight agencies but they all said they could sell a one-way ticket to me that would get me to Freetown but they couldn’t bring me back to Dakar. Finally we found one which sold return ticket to me. At the airport in Dakar, some security authorities told me they couldn’t guarantee I’d be allowed back in Dakar if I left for Sierra Leone but I was upbeat and only Sierra Leone was in my mind. And I left via Morroco.

Ebola Quote 1

According to you, is Ebola epidemic different from other epidemics?

I’ve never covered or heard of any disease as depressing, scary, brutal and serious as Ebola. This virus has rocked and affected every sector of the Sierra Leonean society. Lives were lost but livelihoods too were affected to the core. Everybody in the country has either been infected or affected. While thousands died from Ebola, thousands more have died  and will die because of Ebola. You don’t have to be an Ebola patient to die as a result of Ebola. Because of the fear, discrimination and other things associated with Ebola, people die because they wouldn’t go to hospital or have medical care. Obviously, more people will now die from malaria and other sicknesses thanks to Ebola.

How can journalists limit the risks of being infected? Did you find 'best practices' by yourself?

Well I went to Sierra Leone with very limited skills on preventive measures. I was even more vulnerable being a radio journalist who used microphone to record the voices of people. So what instantly came to mind as soon as I landed in Freetown and what I’ve done was to make sure that none of my interviewees (whether they work in Ebola centers or not) faced me when I was interviewing them. Before any interview, I politely told of my fear of contracting the virus and asked that they did not face me when speaking. I would stand behind them or beside them and let them speak, facing my hand and mic. After each interview I’d wash my hands with chlorine, wipe my mic with chlorine and change my windshield.

When you interviewed people, what were the most important issues: denial of the epidemic? Self-censorship?

I’ve interviewed perhaps a hundred people and none of them denied there was Ebola or were under self-censorship. For most of them, it was more about being helpless, frustrated […] About anxiety, desperation, paranoia about what will happen to them […] when Ebola would knock at their doors and those of their neighbours. In my interviewees, I saw once happy people being silenced and knocked off mentally by a deadly disease. I look into their eyes and I saw fear and hopelessness […] It’s as if it’s just a matter of time because they would succumb to Ebola. I was in Sierra Leone a multiple times before Ebola, and going back there, I saw a completely different country and different people.

Ebola News

Were journalists welcomed by citizens or did you feel anger?

When I arrived at the airport in Lungi, two customs officers were searching my luggage and of course removing deodorants and aftershaves that were not duty-free. Fortunately before they were ready, one of them asked for my purpose of visiting and I said I was a journalist and was there to cover Ebola. Suddenly, they stopped searching, gave me back the things they were going to seize and thanked me for ‘helping’ Sierra Leone by telling the world what was happening there. From then on, everybody I met including ministers and parliamentarians would thank me ‘for coming’ and I had access to everybody I wanted to have access to. People were very welcoming. I guess in me, they found the ‘promised messiah’ who was there to salvage them.

What about authorities and police: could you work freely?

I worked freely and even when I was travelling to quarantined zones where you would come across dozens of military and police checkpoints, I’d just flash my accreditation badge and they would let me pass.

Could you go in remote areas? Did you feel a strong difference with the capital or major towns?

Yes I had travelled to Kenema, at that time one of the two biggest Ebola hubs in the country. I got there from Freetown freely of course with my government-issued badge. When I arrived there, it was under isolation and you could feel the silence of this normally vibrant town. There was fear and confusion. People kept on dying there from Ebola and as a result, everybody was distrustful of everybody.

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What is your most striking memory of your coverage? When were you scared?

My most striking memory was when I got back to Dakar and was at home alone thinking about those dead bodies I saw being put in body bags and taken away for burial. I was also disturbed by the livelihoods that have been lost. People losing their jobs, hotels, bars and restaurants empty, taxi drivers staring in confusion and fear the passengers they carry, poor commercial motorbike riders carrying passengers and each time I asked them if they weren’t scared of contracting Ebola from people, their answer: ‘We leave our fate in the hands of God' and all those things.

Are you different from before your report?

Nothing has ever been the same since I got back. I have no feeling for the things I loved to do before Ebola: going out clubbing and things like that. Often times, memories of Sierra Leone would come back and I would hate everything in the world: money, sex, vanity, all those things. I try as much as possible to stay away from watching Ebola footages on TV.

Can Ebola be compared to a war?

Everybody talk about the devastating impact of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. But sadly while in Sierra Leone, many people told me, ‘Ebola is worse than that war because during the war, when your relative died or got killed, you could still pick the body and give him or her a proper burial. But in Ebola, we do not even have the chance to say goodbye'. Others told me, 'During the war, we knew the enemy and we knew where he was coming from and heading to. With Ebola, we have no idea'.

How did your newsroom welcome you when you came back?

First when I was in Sierra Leone, my colleagues in the office would email me or send me messages on Facebook on a daily basis to ‘congratulate’ for my daily reports, to show support and solidarity and to encourage me to take care of myself. Ebola coverage brought all of them closer to me. Sometimes at night I’d sit in my hotel room in Freetown and cry after reading colleagues' letters. I strengthened our bonds. But at the bottom of each mail sent, they’d ask questions such as, ‘But what do you plan to do when you come back? Are you going to come straight into the office?' So when I resumed work even after my 21 day incubation period, some of my colleagues were so happy and relieved to see me but it took at least extra two weeks for them to start hugging me and touching me. But when I arrived in Dakar, my boss was at the airport waiting for me and when I came out of the arrivals terminal, he ran towards me and hugged me for some seconds. I asked if he was not scared and he said he was showing solidarity with me because he was the one who sent me to Sierra Leone. This was one of the most emotional moments in my life. At that time, I couldn’t be sure if I had Ebola or not and I was already thinking about life in self-isolation and then came my boss hugging me and driving me home, without any care in the world. That was unbelievable. And the first day I resumed work, he walked up to me again and hugged me in front of everybody. That encouraged a few others to hug me. I couldn’t control my emotions and I had to go to the restroom and cry and shed a few tears there for some minutes before starting work.

Ebola Quote 2

Do you want to go back to a Ebola country? If so, how will you prepare your report differently?

Yes, I want to go back to Sierra Leone or head to Liberia. I think I’ve done almost everything I wanted to do. Maybe I will further do is to scrutinise these international agencies on how Ebola funds are being spent. Many people in Sierra Leone suspect foul play in the way these funds are used and I overlooked this issue. So this is something I’d do.

How are you dealing with the trauma of covering such tragic events?

I try as much as possible not to be alone especially. Now I stay at the office even after I finish work. From the office I go from one friend’s house to the other so I can be in a crowd before I reach home. I don’t work in weekends and during the weekends I invite colleagues at home for launch and they stay in my house 'til late at night and I organise barbecues etc. This is a very expensive thing to do but I am scared to be alone. When I’m alone in the house, all these memories come back and I cry a lot and sometimes get scared especially about a UN employee friend who died from Ebola in Sierra Leone shortly I came back to Dakar. I don’t want to bother anybody with my problems but I have the conviction that I’ll be okay eventually. When I invite colleagues home, all they see is this very good man with a big heart, their colleague who loves their company and is kind to them. But in reality, I use them as my shield against memories of horror. When I’m with them I’m not scared. I recently spoke at a video conference about my Sierra Leone experience and after my speech I felt free. But that night was one of the toughest nights since I came back. I cried all night and things have not been good since then.

Listen to Sheriff's stories: