Ebola and My Dog’s Toenails

There’s a connection.

imagesI have been interested in Ebola for years – first in 2007 when an outbreak hit the Congo (DRC); shortly thereafter when there were cases in Uganda; then again when it re-appeared in DRC. The stories were undoubtedly fear-inspiring: a virus of unknown origin, with no known treatment or cure, which appeared to almost dissolve the cells leaving those infected bleeding from every orifice, vomiting, overtaken by diarrhea. Virtually everyone was dead within days.  This is not a pretty picture, even by the standards of those used to malaria, schistosomiasis, untreated HIV/AIDS, and chronic civil war. It’s just not.

I lived in West Africa and have traveled, working, throughout the region. I have a deep affection for the place and the people. And this Ebola was clearly monumental even to the long-suffering West and Central Africans.

The recent Ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the few cases that have arrived in the US have made national news to an American population unused to such fears.  (Well, at least since the early days of AIDS – have we forgotten so quickly?)

But this morning a story by Helene Cooper in Liberia really did it for me (New York Times: Ebola’s Cultural Casualty: Hugs in a Hands-on Land).  She wrote about the how the affectionate, physical Liberians, who smash eight to a taxi, kiss both cheeks routinely, and take 20 minutes to personally greet 10 people at a family gathering, were now standing arms length, making distance on the seat, and waving from the street to greet parents. They’re adapting, with no choice: avoiding physical contact is the only way not to fall ill.

But your own ill two-year-old child?  To not touch her, pick her up, wipe her face?  To stand in the doorway while she cries from fever and vomit?

Words fail me.  I could not do that.  I too would join the ranks of those many, many parents who became ill from aiding their own children. Or the ranks of the adult children who died after responding to the call of their elderly mothers, those mothers: “she the one born me”?  Jesus.

Back to my dog. But who cares? He’s a Golden Retriever puppy, adorable, affectionate, obedient. He’s a cool little time-consuming companion. But by the standards of Ebola, he’s not even a speck. He’s zip, a pampered waste of food and time and money.

IMG_1461I cut his toenails this afternoon and, as I often seem to, I cut a little too low. Blood. It stopped for a while, only to be prompted to return by his incessant tongue. Now there are blood smears and drops appearing: on the rug, the wood floor, the white kitchen tiles. When I got down on my hands and knees to wipe up the blood smeared tiles the Ebola article came back to me. Body fluids: don’t touch.

But women are brought up to clean up body fluids: it’s part of our DNA. He is, in a way, my dependent. I was struck by the parallel experience that was world’s away in Liberia.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t for a minute think my Sunday’s bloody floor cleanup was anywhere on the spectrum of what my sisters and brothers in Liberia are dealing with. It was that very discordance that struck me.  I am where I am only by accident of birth.

My heart goes out to all those parents in Liberia – and Sierra Leone, and Guinea – trying to decide in the middle of the night if they should usher in their feverish four year old, taking him sleepily in their arms, or if they should get up, so so quickly, before their courage leaves them, and turn the lock in the door.