Like hundreds of other nursing students in Liberia, Jerry Songu should have been beginning his internship this month, the final step to graduating and earning his license. Instead, he has chosen to put his studies and future career on hold.
“Ebola has no boundaries,” the 36-year-old, who is in his third year of nursing school at the Caldwell Community Nursing School in the capital Monrovia, told IRIN. “It killed registered nurses and it can also kill practising nurses. So this is nothing to play with.”
“For me, I have resolved to wait until everything [the Ebola outbreak] is totally over,” he said. “My life is important and I must do everything to protect it. Big [senior] doctors died in this country from Ebola and who am I to take the risk? I am just a student. No rush now.”
Liberia was in dire need of more doctors and nurses before the Ebola outbreak began. The health system has struggled to rebuild followed the 1999-2003 civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. A lack of good schools and training as well as depressed wages meant recovery in the medical sector was painfully slow.
Then the country lost nearly 200 health workers during the deadly Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa. Now the situation is getting even more desperate as many Liberians considering a medical career are being put off because they’re afraid of catching the virus.
Songu certainly isn’t alone. Before the outbreak, the country averaged around 1,000 nursing students per year. Just 400 or so have signed up this year.
Morris Nyanfore is a nursing teacher in Monrovia. He said that when he told his students about the internship, most of them were reluctant to sign up. “We told them everything they needed to do [to protect themselves] when they go into the hospital,” he said. “But most of them expressed fear of contracting the disease.”
Weighing the risk
Ebola was first confirmed in Liberia on 30 March 2014. The country was briefly declared Ebola-free in May 2015, but on 30 June the outbreak resurfaced. No new cases have been reported since mid-July.
More than two dozen medical interns assigned at various health facilities across the country died in 2014 after contracting Ebola, local authorities say. At least 192 Liberian health workers have died in all.
Health officials here have begun trying to reassure nursing students that the risk of contracting Ebola is quite low. Although, there is no special program in place to assist those who want to become nurses or doctors, the government has been providing additional protective equipment and teaching students how to protect themselves against the virus.
But, for many, this isn’t enough.
“Our administrators need to be sensible and wait a while before sending us for the internship,” 28-year-old Martha Clinton, a second-year nursing student at the Community Nursing School on Bushrod Island in the outskirts of Monrovia, told IRIN. “Just the other day Ebola resurfaced in this country when we were not expecting it. This thing can come and go.”
Clinton is also refusing to start her internship until Ebola is completely gone from the region.
“I know it is very important to do my internship, but I am also scared of Ebola,” she said. “I don’t want to be another victim like my colleagues who went for an internship last year…. Our neighbours are still experiencing Ebola. Why are we in a rush to do this? We need to wait a bit…. My life comes first.”
Nurses in Liberia earn up to just $125 each month at public hospitals and $150 at private clinics. It is an amount many see as too low to justify such risk, and no more than several other safer professions would pay.
“I am finding it very hard to make this decision [to start my internship],” 31-year-old Monrovia nursing student Annie Wlojo, told IRIN. “I have two young children and I am the only one providing for their needs…. I don’t want my kids to suffer [if I die from Ebola]. So I have decided to wait until another time before I can make that decision to go for the internship.”
‘Our country needs us’
Despite the pervasive fear, there are still some nursing students who are willing to continue their studies for the sake of helping others.
“Yes, it was a difficult decision to make,” said 34-year-old Joe Smith, who just began his internship at the Redemption Hospital in New Kru Town. “I thought it over many times but later decided to go. I think this is the time our country really needs us.”
Marconi Collins, a nursing intern at the same hospital, told IRIN that even though she is scared of Ebola, she is prepared to serve people who are sick.
“If we all decided not to do the internship, then where is this country headed?” she asked. “I know Ebola is bad, but we need to serve humanity…. I wear my PPEs [personal protection equipment] and I make sure I don’t touch patients with my bare hands. I avoid touching all [bodily] fluids. We need to help our own people because we can’t expect foreigners to come to our county to serve our people.”