By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
EULESS, Texas — Carolyn Woahloe said what was on everyone’s mind: Some Texans are blaming her and fellow Liberians for the first Ebola case to be diagnosed in the U.S.
In the days since a Liberian named Thomas Eric Duncan traveled to the Dallas area from West Africa, became ill and eventually tested positive for the deadly virus that has killed thousands in that region, she and others have heard the whispers and taunts.
“Go back to Liberia.”
On Wednesday night, Woahloe, a registered nurse, appeared with several Liberian pastors and community leaders to spread the word: Please don’t blame Liberians.
Woahloe said she got calls from at least two Liberian workers who said colleagues told them they should leave the U.S. The nurse said she told the callers to stand their ground.
“If I am Liberian, that doesn’t mean that I have Ebola,” Woahloe said at a news conference at the New Life Fellowship Church in this Dallas suburb. “This is not a Liberian problem. This is a world problem.”
A group of about ten leaders stood together as a sign of solidarity, next to a drum set featuring African bongos. Stanley Gaye, president of the Liberian Community Assn. of Dallas-Fort Worth, addressed a crowd of reporters who had pressing questions:
“Do you know the Ebola patient?”
“Where is the patient’s family?”
“Is the community concerned for its image?”
Gaye said the last thing Liberians need is to be stigmatized.
“We want to work together with the Dallas community and with the people of the Liberian community to get as much information out about this as possible,” he said.
Someone asked whether Liberia’s borders should be closed to keep other infected people from leaving — although health officials have said Duncan showed no sign of illness when he left Liberia.
One community leader jumped up and took the microphone, eager to respond.
“I think there are two sides to this story,” local Liberian Pastor Emmanuel Botchway said. “When you close the borders of a country, you don’t just restrict the movement of people. Once you stop travel, you put a stop to trade and commerce. That would be terrible for Liberia.”
Gaye said the Liberian community had met a month ago with officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Dallas area to learn what they could do for relatives suffering from Ebola back home in the impoverished nation, where healthcare is substandard and even ambulances are scarce.
But since Duncan’s diagnosis, Gaye said, the community has not heard from federal, state or local health officials. The community has tried to reach out, he said, to no avail.
Harling Moore, pastor at New Life Fellowship Church, said the Liberian community – which numbers about 10,000 throughout central Texas – has more to worry about than its public image: Their countrymen in Africa are dying.
“We’ve been in communication with loved ones back home,” he said. “We’re offering advice on how to deal with this disease, and we are sending supplies.”
In the church parking lot, officials pointed to a semi-trailer they said was loaded with medical supplies. On Friday, it is to be sent to two hospitals in Liberia.
If the borders were closed, they said, aid could not get in.
“This is more than just about words,” said Moore, 45, who fled civil war in Liberia and has lived in Dallas for 14 years. “This is a life-and-death situation. But we are trying to stay positive, encouraging one another and letting the community know that we are possible victims in this situation as well.”
Jimmy Sando, 26, a Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport worker, stood among the community leaders. “Every major disease … known to man starts somewhere, but it doesn’t stay in one place,” he said. “It spreads. Like HIV and AIDS spread.”
So please don’t point a finger at Liberia, he pleaded.
“This disease has been around since the 1970s. It … spread to countries like Nigeria and Liberia. You can’t blame Liberians, just like you can’t blame any one nation for AIDS. That’s just fear talking. Here there is one case. Back home, there are many, many cases.”
Ebola is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected people who have symptoms, such as bleeding or vomiting. One cannot become infected by airborne transmission.
Botchway said pastors in the nine local Liberian churches would take to their pulpits Sunday to spread the word about the disease. They will implore citizens who might have come in contact with Duncan to go to the hospital and to contact the CDC.
“We will tell them that this is not a disease of shame,” he said. “If you think you might be infected, or if you know someone else, please come forward.”
But don’t even think of returning to your homeland because of mean-spirited comments, Woahloe stressed.
One of the women who called her said she had to go home, Woahloe said. “And I told her, ‘Don’t go anywhere. Just go to work.'”
AFP Photo/Jewel Samad