CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault on reporting from the front lines of the Ebola epidemic
By ILINA GHOSH
After eight days of reporting in the Ebola–ravaged city of Monrovia, Liberia, CBC News senior correspondent Adrienne Arsenault says fear and suspicion haunted her team’s homecoming – even before they set foot back in Canada.
It was October 2014 and while the Ebola virus was rapidly coursing through western Africa, a different epidemic had taken hold in North America.
“[Fear-bola began] when we were there and we knew our return was not going to be pretty. I was getting tweets from people that are unconscionable – ‘How dare you go there and expose Canadians. I hope you get sick and die there.’”
Although uninfected, Arsenault and her team – producer Stephanie Jenzer and videographer Jean-François Bisson – underwent a voluntary quarantine for three weeks after their return.
“We knew we had not been exposed, in a sense that we know that we had not come in contact with infectious fluids. We knew. We knew that we were fine,” Arsenault said during a presentation organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.
“But in the name of not causing complete mayhem because some people were still afraid of us, we didn’t go to the office for 21 days. We were in a condo across the street from CBC, still working, still filing.”
While they intellectually understood the need for the quarantine, the fear amongst the public and rejection by some closest to them was unexpected and difficult to handle, Arsenault said.
“We felt like it was a failure of our reporting that people were still afraid of us. We thought we had explained it properly and we were stunned by the degree to which people still had this sense that we had brought this horrible thing to Canada.
“This is what Ebola does; it’s fear factor is beyond comprehension.”
Arsenault said she got the call to go to Liberia in August of 2014, as the Ebola epidemic began ravaging the region. She and the other members of her team, Jenzer and Bisson, said ‘yes’ within seconds.
“I don’t think it’s in our DNA to say no. I don’t think we could have lived with ourselves. What a horrible thing that was happening to people and the world really wasn’t giving a damn. And I happen to think that’s where CBC steps up, in a way that makes me endlessly proud of it.”
The team and its news organization faced a number of deterrents, but understood the value of the story, she said.
“It’s expensive to go to Liberia [and] it’s probably not the sexiest television reporting… CBC’s insurers had informed them that there was no guarantee of a medical evacuation in the event that someone on the team got sick… And yet, CBC said, ‘If you’re game, we will do everything in our power to make sure you’re okay and it works and get you home.’”
The team would go on to win the 2015 International Emmy Award for their coverage of the Ebola crisis from its epicentre in Monrovia.
Between March 2014 and Jan. 31, 2016, there have been 28,639 cases of Ebola globally, according to the World Health Organization, and 11,316 people have died as a result.
When reporting on disasters, journalists are typically en route within hours of the call, Arsenault noted. “But with Ebola it was three to four weeks between getting the ‘you need to go’ and actually getting on a plane… it’s complicated to plan for.”
The CBC journalists trained extensively with the infectious disease control unit at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, focusing in particular on how the virus is transmitted.
“This was the most important thing for us, to really mentally process how it’s transmitted, through contact with the infectious fluids of symptomatic people.”
They were taught to prepare for every possibility of infection, learning to stop reflexive actions and exercise extreme caution in the field.
On the ground, the team bleached every surface they came in contact with, took their temperatures twice a day, ate only military rations to reduce chances of food contamination, and always wore gloves in the field.
Making buckets of bleach 2 disinfect car, gear, boots, hands each time in/out of car. A must 4 #liberians now #ebola pic.twitter.com/TL1LIb4KnR
— Adrienne Arsenault (@adriearsenault) September 28, 2014
The highly infectious nature of the disease made certain aspects of empathetic reporting difficult, she said.
“When we interview people, there’s an intimacy, especially people who are going through something like this… But when you’re covering Ebola, everything is about vomit distance. Everything that we did was a safe, unnatural distance away that was antithetical to [being] an empathic journalist.”
It was also antithetical to the Liberian way of life, Arsenault said.
“It is a country that has a culture with a very warm, gregarious embrace. But no one was touching anyone. When we interviewed the president, I couldn’t even shake her hand. I apologized for being so rude and she said, ‘No one shakes anyone’s hand. No one touches anyone.’”
Beautiful touch. MSF worker gently touches #Ebola survivor. 1st skin 2 skin contact 4 woman now virus free. #cbc 1/2 pic.twitter.com/h5d2eKrnlB
— Adrienne Arsenault (@adriearsenault) September 30, 2014
The virus is particularly vicious because it goes for people who love each other, she added.
“It doesn’t go for strangers. So if someone is [infected] in a family, there’s a good chance that whoever it is who cares enough to wipe the sweat off someone’s brow or clean up someone’s vomit – that’s the person who’s going to get it.”
The CBC team arrived in Monrovia in October 2014 and stayed only eight days because it was expensive, but also because of the risk of infection.
“With no promise of medical evacuation if someone was ill, the only thing we could do was make sure that we were out of the country before the first symptoms showed up,” Arsenault said.
The first stories centred on the physical and emotional toll the disease was taking on the people of Liberia: “We were showing people the worst of it, really getting them to feel it,” Arsenault said.
“We did a story with a body retrieval unit. In Liberia, the death ritual is so important in order to guarantee that someone has a good afterlife… and yet these men would come around in these white jumpsuits and spray down the walls, kick down doors, throw the body in a body bag.”
The Red Cross #ebola body retrieval team in #monrovia. All the more dangerous in driving rain. We r with them 2day pic.twitter.com/CHTV7nbaTM
— Adrienne Arsenault (@adriearsenault) September 29, 2014
That story was followed by coverage of the youngest victims of the crisis, their uncertain futures and the stigma they faced.
“There was a terrible problem with Ebola orphans… Not just kids who were sick and alone… but there were little kids with their hands in the air who had lost their families, dying for someone to pick them up and no one was touching them.”
Next, the team took viewers through the streets of Monrovia, then into its clinics.
While Ebola can be a deadly disease, Arsenault says it can be effectively treated in the early stages with Tylenol, fluids and access to indoor plumbing.
Before coming back to Canada, Arsenault also interviewed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, focusing on accountability for the country’s shattered healthcare system.
Arsenault said leaving Monrovia wasn’t easy: “You feel like a horrible human [when you have to leave these places.]
“There’s a helplessness to being a reporter in a place like that. You want to pick up the kids. You want to bring them home. But you also have to remember that it’s not a cliché to say that you’re there to give people voice.”
Arsenault said it is human to respond to tragedies when covering a story.
“It is okay to be horrified and nauseous and devastated by what you see… Watching the [work we produced,] I’m hearing how angry I am… That is okay,” she said. “That is your job, to work all that out when you write.”
It was near the end of their trip that Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who contracted Ebola in Monrovia, fled to the United States and began what Arsenault calls, “Fear-bola.”
Within weeks, nearly two-thirds of Americans were concerned about a widespread Ebola epidemic in the United States, according to a Washington Post – ABC News poll. This was despite repeated assurances from public officials that the country’s health care and disease surveillance system would prevent any such outbreak.
Canadians, meanwhile, were not immune.
“Even the doctors who had returned from covering Ebola were struggling a little bit with their own colleagues,” Arsenault said. “Nurses and doctors at their own hospitals who knew intellectually that everything was okay were still wary of them, wouldn’t eat lunch with them, wouldn’t connect with them.”
Arsenault also said that despite the significance of the Ebola crisis, the story was underreported.
“For something as bad as that, it was a bit sad not to be bumping into other crews. I think in some ways, when that man got sick, Thomas Eric Duncan, it was like all the American journalistic lights [shifted immediately to the U.S.]. And poor Liberia was like ‘Hey, hey, hey, the crisis is still here.’”
The stories of Monrovia have stayed with her and her colleagues, Arsenault said.
“We would go back in a heartbeat. For some reason this is one story that we’re okay talking about again and again. A lot of times when we’re done with these types of ugly stories, we don’t really want to talk about them. But there’s something so heartbreaking about Ebola,” she said.
“It’s one of those stories that doesn’t end.”
View Arsenault’s full presentation here.