Liberian student George Jacobs is doing a master programme at Erasmus University Rotterdam. But although he’s safe in the Netherlands, his wife, children and friends are left behind in a country ravaged by the Ebola virus. “Yes, it’s very stressful for us all,” he says.
Text: Erik van Rein Photo: Ronald van den Heerik
George Jacobs (39) is wearing a woolly hat and a winter coat and scarf, in spite of the fact that it’s pleasantly warm in the hall of the Institute for Social Sciences in The Hague. He finds the Dutch climate very cold and bleak. However, he hasn’t come here to enjoy the weather: he’s here to obtain his master degree in Development Studies with a major in Social Policy for Development.
George has been working at the Ministry of Health in the Liberian capital of Monrovia for many years. But just as he finally got the opportunity to come and study in the Netherlands this summer, Liberia was hit by the deadly and extremely contagious Ebola virus, which has meanwhile cost thousands of people their lives. But he still decided to come here, even though he has had to leave his wife and young family behind for a year. “The choice was a difficult one for me to make, but I’d been hoping and praying for a long time that I could study in the Netherlands,” he says.
George was working at the Liberian Ministry of Health last March when the Ebola virus started spreading throughout western Africa. Health care is free in Liberia because the country is still licking its wounds after almost 14 years of civil war. “Patients from neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea came to Liberia so they could benefit from our free health care too, and they brought the Ebola virus with them,” explains George.
Since we don’t know a great deal about the virus, which causes internal bleeding and is very often fatal for those infected with it, there were hardly any resources for dealing with it in poverty-stricken Liberia. According to George, the fact that the virus is spreading so rapidly is also due to the Liberian people’s total lack of confidence in their government. “Our Ministry received information on the cases of infection and we disseminated this information among the public, but they refused to believe us,” he says sadly. “Liberians have an ingrained distrust of the government because of all that’s happened in the past. Even politicians including a senator were saying on the radio that they didn’t believe Ebola had spread to Liberia. So when people started dying from the virus, their bodies weren’t given away to health workers – their families and friends just buried them in the normal way due the disbelief. And the virus spread like wildfire, because there’s often a considerable chance of infection just after an Ebola patient has died.”
But George has nevertheless stopped working at the Ministry of Health for a while in order to study in the Netherlands. An Ebola epidemic had broken out when he left for the Netherlands at the end of August, and tickets cost four times as much as a result. He was able to travel to Europe from Accra, the capital of Ghana.
He is frequently confronted with the situation in his own country during his intensive master programme. A lot of his friends and colleagues at the Ministry of Health – most of whom were health workers – have already succumbed to the virus. And his three children, the eldest of whom is only 7, are unable to attend school because all the schools are closed, and George’s wife often has to run risks by going to busy places like markets just to buy food. “My wife phoned me a couple of weeks ago to say that someone living a couple of houses away had died of Ebola,” says George. “They couldn’t remove the body simply because they didn’t have the resources. And this was terribly stressful. There are a lot of poor people living in that building who come into contact with each other, which means they run a huge risk of contracting the virus. I was ringing the police and the Ministry in Liberia from here for days to urge them to get relief workers to remove the body as soon as possible. But they only did this after three days. Thank heavens; nobody’s become infected as far as I know.”
George has no regrets about his decision to come to the Netherlands. Some of his friends are annoyed and have criticised him because they feel he’s left his family in the lurch, but George isn’t letting their comments worry him: “My wife and I took this decision together,” he says. “She’s a very strong person, she told me to go, I was the one who wasn’t sure. I do feel I have a responsibility to keep my wife and children safe and help my country, but at the same time, I’ve worked and prayed so very hard up to the time I was able to leave. Now I’ve made my choice, and I have to stick to it. I haven’t any regrets, but it’s still difficult.”
And the situation isn’t making it any easier for George to study either. “It’s tough, there’s a lot of pressure, but I have to succeed,” he says. “I’d be a double failure if I didn’t complete the programme successfully. After all, I knew about the situation when I left. I wouldn’t have gone to the Netherlands unless I’d felt I could cope.”