Ebola Frontline: Despite Discrimination and Lack of Adequate Medical Gear, Nurses Carry On

Nurses talk near a poster displaying a government message against Ebola, at a hospital in Abidjan. Luc Gnago/Reuters

Last Wednesday, widely-respected Nurse Sister Sandro Kamara went on the Starline Radio station in Kenema to talk about the dangerous position nurses in Sierra Leone are in.

She called this Ebola outbreak a war, and in war, those soldiers who fight on the front lines die faster than others. Would we send these soldiers to war without guns? Then why do our nurses on the frontlines not have enough protective equipment?

Sister Kamara drew many parallels with the civil war (fought from 1991 to 2002), and many Sierra Leoneans have also made the same comparison. The war came across the border from a neighboring country, just like Ebola. Just like Ebola, the war was worse in the East before spreading to the rest of the country. But in the civil war, there were always bullets, while when it comes to fighting Ebola, nurses don’t even have enough gloves.

“That’s the worry of everyone right now. All the doctors and nurses I’ve spoken to are worried about being protected from this virus,” Victoria Bernard, a reporter with Star Radio tells me. Many medical professionals have raised the lack of protective gear as a serious concern, especially as they see their colleagues die. Thirty seven nurses died in the month of July alone.

“These nurses are putting their own lives at stake, but also the lives of their families,” Bernard says. “If a nurse goes home sick to her family, the disease will spread.”

The outpatient ward of Kenema Hospital is practically empty as people stay away in fear of interacting with the under-protected nurses. And yet, despite the low numbers of patients, there still are not enough nurses in the hospital.

“Ebola is a disease that needs professionals, and there aren’t enough of them,” Bernard said. According to her sources, there are more trained volunteers than nurses working in the isolation units.

The sick staying home might end up exacerbating the crisis. If Ebola infests people’s houses and, does not get contained in the isolation units, it will be harder to get this outbreak under control. It will mean the death toll, already under-reported according to Bernard and others, will be much higher.

The nurses have threatened to strike on several occasions during this outbreak over the lack of protective gear and the danger pay that has been promised but never delivered. Each time, they are slowly brought back to work, through conciliatory gestures or outright threats from their superiors. There are glimmers of hope though: Red Cross and WHO have donated protective gear to the hospitals and on Sunday equipment and a medical team arrived from the government of China.   

However, the stigma of working with Ebola continues to haunt these nurses.. In cases around the country, landlords are evicting nurses from their homes with no warning, apparently to protect tenants and themselves. Bernard told me of marriages dissolved, and families ostracizing their own: “Now is not the time for this. We have to be united and support these nurses.”

Chad McCordic is a Community Projects Manager with Minneapolis, Minnesota-based non-profit OneVillage Partners