A Liberian man named Korlia walks into his local barber shop seeking a haircut. He comes through the entrance and is met by hostility he has recognised before. Moments later, he is denied use of the services offered by the establishment, once again falling victim to prejudice, and wrongly discriminated against on grounds of being a health hazard. A harsh reminder that the stigma attached to Ebola will exist with him, even if the infection is eradicated from his system. This is a reality for many in the West African region.

The devastation that Ebola has brought upon the West African region has been exposed for the world to see, yet ever deeper tribulations exist following the epidemic’s rise. This is the stigmatization of former sufferers, only resulting in extending their emotional turmoil. The World Health Organization estimates that over 650 people have survived Ebola in Sierra Leone. With this, a recent UN Children’s Fund survey of 1,400 households across the country shows that survivors face high levels of discrimination, which deeply affects their ability to rebuild their lives. The same kind of stigma is even transferred to the care workers aiding the Ebola victims and their families.

According to figures, 70 to 90 per cent of sufferers will die from the virus, yet even for the survivors, the pain continues. Since being discharged from hospital, Korlia Bonarwolo wakes up to an inequity he has faced ever since his fight against Ebola began. This inequity being that even though he is now free from the infection, he is still chained by the stigma attached to being a former sufferer. He is even forced to eat with separate cutlery from the rest of his family, saying ‘I think sometimes my family set me aside’, and, ‘it makes me feel sad’. This unjustified caution is completely unfair, as in reality, avoiding transmission is relatively simple by survivors avoiding sexual contact for up to three months after being discharged from treatment.

This is a very important issue, especially within West Africa, where many former sufferers are returning home to their communities, only to be shunned. This is a reality many people in West Africa must face, and with a certain painful reminder. For while they were one of the few individuals with immune systems capable of beating the virus, they will always carry the remnants of fear that causes people in communities to marginalise them from social life.

Challenges such as these are, however, not restricted to the confines of West African countries. One such case from an Italian kindergarten emerged, in which a three-year-old girl was banned from attending, having been to Uganda on a vacation. Such hysteria is typical of a fear and ignorance that shouldn’t occur in more advanced and educated societies, but, unfortunately, it does.

Fortunately efforts are being made to remove the stigmatization. A grassroots campaign within the US has begun an ‘I am a Liberian, not a virus’ initiative, aiming to eradicate the stigmatization that people of West African descent face. In a way, this stigma produced abroad is even less justified, as it affects people who haven’t even had the disease, and produces unfair discrimination based on their ethnicity or choice of holiday destinations.

Shoana Clarke Solomon is part of the initiative, and claims that: ‘We are Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Guineans, and Nigerians. We live in a region that has been devastated by a deadly disease, but we’re not all infected. It is wrong to stereotype and stigmatize an entire people. Remember, we are human beings’. This rings true, especially considering the fact that only two reported cases have emerged from the US, in comparison to over 4,500 deaths in West Africa.

Meanwhile in Sierra Leone, actual legislation is being put into action to deal with the issue of stigmatization. Jeanne Kamara, who works as the Country Manager of Christian Aid in Freetown, supports this movement saying: ‘What people are talking about now is what we did with HIV kind-of issues… to work with communities, particularly community leaders…ensure that some bylaws are passed around stigmatization and there are some penalties. And also making sure that there are some support groups that are established for these people and their issues are dealt with in a way that is sensitive, in a way that gives them confidence again in who they are, in a way that they can come back and contribute’. This is, therefore, an effective strategy to fight the stigmatization Ebola has produced, as shown in previous years with HIV, and, hopefully, provides an answer to this very real problem.

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