Practically everyone at the march had a story about someone who refused to shake hands or moved to a different bus seat when they realized they were near a Liberian.
“Once they hear our accent, people try to avoid us,” said Harris Murphy, a filmmaker. “Everybody is afraid of you. I’m a West African – not a virus.”
On Saturday, he and about 60 members of Philadelphia’s Liberian, Guinean, and Sierra Leonean communities took to the streets, staging a noisy, drum-thumping demonstration to call attention to the facts of the deadly Ebola virus, which has killed nearly 5,000 in West Africa.
Billed as, “Walk To Make A Difference: Operation Crush Ebola,” the goal was twofold: To alert people to what should be obvious – that having an African homeland does not equate to infection – and to share information on the virus and its spread. Marchers handed out literature to onlookers as they moved through Southwest Philadelphia.
“I am an American,” said a sign carried by 5-year-old Promise Murphy. “I stand against Ebola.”
In this country, fear of the disease has far outpaced its spread, dominating cable news and television talk shows though only a handful of people have been infected.
An American physician is under treatment in New York, where he returned after caring for Ebola victims in Guinea. His illness prompted new quarantine measures at international airports in New York and Newark.
Two American nurses who contracted Ebola while caring for a Liberian patient in Dallas, Texas, have been declared virus-free. Their patient died Oct. 8, after becoming the first person diagnosed in this country.
This week the U.S. began requiring travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to enter through one of five airports that conduct stricter Ebola screenings. The travelers must contact health authorities daily to report their temperatures during the standard 21-day incubation period.
On Saturday, men, women and children traversed a 23-block route from 70th and Woodland to Kingsessing Park. Several said they felt singled out and frustrated, and hoped the march would grow public understanding about Ebola.
“At the airport, on the train, on the trolley, people don’t sit close to you,” said Prince Kweh, a Liberian. “We want to send a message that we are not a virus, we are individuals.”
The marchers chanted “Ebola must go!” and handed out bumper stickers that said, “Ebola – leave us alone.”
The Philadelphia area’s large Liberian immigrant community, estimated at 10,000 people, has responded to Ebola in multiple ways: postponing trips to Africa, checking more often on family back home, and even imposing 21-day self-quarantines if they meet someone recently arrived from Liberia.
Several people said on Saturday that they dread the next phone call from their homeland will bring terrible news about their family.
Chealley Tardey said he has not been back to Liberia since coming to this country in 2004 – but people act as if he’s infected.
Recently he happened to transport an uncle to a doctor’s appointment, and a man in the waiting room asked where they were from.
“Liberia,” Tardey answered.
The man jumped up and grabbed the office bottle of hand sanitizer, he said.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with a sick person’s blood or body fluids – including urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, and semen. Many people in West Africa have even stopped shaking hands with others.
At the march on Saturday, Gurly Gibson, a trade representative with the Liberian embassy, declined to shake a reporter’s hand – or that of anyone else.
“It’s about time we all changed our behaviors,” she said, apologetically. “We, too, are panicking. We’re just like everyone else.”
Her 13-year-old twin daughters, Geraldine and Geralyn Brown, said they took part to show their concern about Ebola.
“If it gets out of control,” Geralyn said, “we’ll all be stuck in the hospital.”
Ebola can kill up to 90 percent of its victims, though in this outbreak the fatality rate has been about 50 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
“We want to let the world know the facts,” Rev. Moses Suah Dennis said. “We’re fighting not just Ebola, but the rumors about Ebola.”
This article was written by Jeff Gammage, Inquirer Staff Writer and first published on Philly.com
Image Credit Michael Bryant
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