An Ebola Summit held here at the Berta Dreyfus Public School 49 on Oct. 25 brought together a diverse group of people representing health care, civil rights, cultural performers, immigrants, city agencies, advocates and those in the community impacted by the Ebola virus disease (EVD). The meeting was co-sponsored by Councilperson Debi Rose and Togba Porte, chair of the African Ebola Crisis Committee. Some 30,000 West African immigrants from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea live in an area of Staten Island known as “Little Africa.”
“We are West African, we are not a virus,” said Porte. “Ebola is a serious ailment impacting the homeland of many North Shore residents. This summit gives us the opportunity to come together as a community to discuss how to address EVD.”
The African immigrant community in Staten Island has had to face large doses of panic over the past month, reaching the level of paranoia. In addition to dealing with the Temporary Protective Status set by the Obama administration, which forces all West Africans to register each year for green cards, EVD is forcing them to send more money in the form of remittances back to their homelands. Like so many other immigrants living in the U.S., they suffer from subminimum housing, health care and schools.
The summit came in the aftermath of an announcement from Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey that their states would quarantine all people entering the country from West Africa who had had any contact with EVD. This no doubt had a direct effect on the summit turnout, having prompted a racist paranoia.
The summit was called by Bishop Philip Saywrayne of the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church and Staten Island Liberian Ministerial Alliance. Saywrayne has lost 14 members of his family to EVD. Officials representing Nigeria, Liberia and Mali participated, as well as Morlai Kamara, president of the U.S. Sierra Leonean Association; Didier Fall, president of the U.S. Guinean Organization of Staten Island; and Oretha Bestman-Yates, president of the Staten Island Community Association.
Bestman-Yates, a health-care worker at a private hospital in Staten Island, spoke of the stigma surrounding EVD. After she returned from a visit to Liberia in July, she was cleared by her doctor to go back to her job. But when she returned, her bosses told her to go home with paid leave. “I asked them, ‘Are you telling me not to come in because of Ebola or because I’m Liberian?’”
‘Nigeria now an Ebola-free zone’
Omar A. Lawal, a senior Foreign Service officer at the Nigerian Embassy, said Nigeria had successfully contained the Ebola virus by having a tight monitoring and strict communication strategy called “Protect your family, protect your community from the Ebola virus.”
The Nigeria Center for Disease Control declared an Ebola emergency when its first patient, Patrick Sawyer, having traveled from Liberia to Nigeria to get better health care, collapsed in the Lagos airport in July with symptoms of Ebola. This exposed 72 people at the airport and a hospital.
Nigeria has an energetic campaign of public education. Officials went house-to-house to visit 26,000 families. A total of 849 contacts were identified. About 18,500 face-to-face visits were conducted to find them. Public education officers explained the Ebola warning signs and how to prevent the virus from spreading. Leaflets and billboards reached many more with a multi-language social media message.
In all, some eight people died and another 11 patients recovered and were discharged. The World Health Organization announced on Oct. 17 that Nigeria is now an Ebola-free zone.
Councilperson Debi Rose said there was no need to fear contracting EVD: “You have a better chance of dying from influenza than EVD. There are 8 million people in New York City. Only one person has tested positive for the virus, Dr. Craig Spencer of West Harlem.”
Dr. Spencer, an emergency physician with Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital who treated people with EVD in Guinea, is now being treated in isolation at Bellevue Hospital.
President Kamara of the Sierra Leone Association said, ”The Ebola epidemic has led to a hunger crisis of epic proportions“ in Sierra Leone, where thousands are infected and more than 900 have died. Some 40 percent of the farmers have abandoned their fields. Coffee, rice and cocoa beans amount to 90 percent of the country’s agriculture. Now billion of dollars in outside investment is gone, and because farming has been decimated, there is a great loss of jobs.
Dr. Aletha Maybank, assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, spoke of EVD and mental depression in both West Africa and Staten Island. With thousands dead, millions of people are thinking about how they may be affected by the loss of loved ones and co-workers. A PowerPoint presentation explained what to do if you or someone you know has EVD or has been in contact with an EVD patient.
A representative of the International Action Center gave solidarity to the Ebola Summit and the West African community “to fight Ebola, not wars.”
On Saturday, Nov. 1, a memorial service for all from West Africa who have died from EVD will be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1333 Bay St., Staten Island, N.Y.