Ebola Is Killing Women In Far Greater Numbers Than Men
Published by Buzzfeed
MONROVIA, Liberia — Ebola is killing Kona Kupee, who loved her husband too much. Kupee is 36. Her husband, Alosho Mumbah, died of Ebola on Aug. 15. He’d known he was sick for a week — he’d been calling a national hotline, trying to get someone to take him out of his house and into a treatment center — but Kupee didn’t know he had Ebola. He had a fever and vomited and shook violently, but he didn’t bleed. She worried it might be Ebola, especially with all the phone calls, but she told herself it was something else. Had to be. Where would he have gotten Ebola, anyway?
All the while, she took care of him, bathing him and feeding him and cleaning up whatever way the disease ravaged his stomach. She was his wife, after all.
And in ignoring the risks of disease in order to give comfort, she’s not unlike most Liberian women. In fact, the people who see patients and who bag bodies and who respond to calls agree that it’s mostly women who are dying of Ebola in Liberia, and this, they say, is why.
To specialists, Ebola is a deadly but manageable threat. It isn’t contagious until patients show symptoms, and chlorine and ultraviolet light and even a good soaping up will kill it. Avoid the bodily fluids of the sick and you’ll probably avoid Ebola.
But to families losing their loved ones, Ebola is a heartless killer. It demands what most people consider a ruthless response to suffering: distance. Its secret weapon is not the scientific mystery of its seven proteins. It’s love. It’s the human need to show compassion and care, and it’s killing Liberia’s women.
The Ministry of Health says fully 75% of the Ebola deaths it has counted are women, but it doesn’t release disaggregated mortality statistics. But Tolbert Nyenswah, the assistant minister of health who provided the estimate, agrees that whatever the number, women bear the biggest mortality burden of this disease. Culturally, they are expected to do the caretaking. “In this country,” he said, “men are bullshit.”
Slowly, health care workers are getting the equipment they need to touch patients, a head-to-toe uniform called PPE, or personal protective equipment. But there are no plans to issue PPE to mothers and wives and daughters.
It’s hard to imagine a mother tolerating PPE. The goggles and masks obscure the face; the head-to-toe white suit engulfs familiar body language or movement. People in PPE are white plastic strangers.
Dr. Samuel Brisbane, Liberia’s top doctor, wouldn’t have wanted to look like a plastic stranger, either. He was the chief medical officer at the country’s teaching and referral hospital, the man in charge of the place where students learned and patients ended up if things went really, really bad. He was a man of prominence and authority, things that are respected here with more reverence than, say, the States, where Brisbane’s wife and children live.
But Brisbane wasn’t just a man of stature. He was a man who’d stayed through the civil war, a man who could handle crises, who could do things — and sometimes the only man who could do many things the hospital needed.
“He was the most senior, the most experienced,” said Dr. Wvannie Scott-McDonald, the general administrator and CEO at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, where Brisbane worked. “This is the one person who did intubation, who did CPR, who did shocks [defibrillation]. He was there — with all that contact. He was the hero in that area.”
He was, simply, the best. When Dr. Brisbane was alive, no one could touch him. And when Dr. Brisbane died, no one could touch him.
He contracted Ebola from a patient who went into cardiac arrest. Ebola, a rare but deadly virus raging now in three West African countries, spreads through bodily fluids. But this patient didn’t have any of Ebola’s usual symptoms, McDonald said: No fever. No vomiting or diarrhea. No bleeding. No reason to suit up.
So when the man’s heart stopped, Brisbane went in without the full protective gear health workers touching Ebola patients should wear. He did CPR. He ventilated him. He hooked him up to the usual series of tubes and wires. “And that’s what happened,” McDonald said, tearing up, as she described the last case Brisbane worked on.
When Brisbane’s colleagues went to his funeral, they couldn’t touch each other, either. Brisbane’s patient was the first Ebola case in their hospital, and he had taken down Liberia’s untouchable doctor. Their grief was enormous, but their fear was greater.
“When we went to bury Dr. Brisbane, we were all frightened. We couldn’t even comfort one another,” McDonald said. “To care is to comfort, to console. Ebola has taken away our comfort. It has taken away our humanity.”