A few weeks ago, I flew from Atlanta to Murtala Muhammed International Airport here. Everything about the flight was routine, until I saw a flight attendant, a face mask flattening her blond hair, tentatively approach an older woman sitting several rows behind me. Upon landing, the flight attendants informed us that there would be a delay in disembarking because the woman was ill.
The passengers began gossiping: It couldn’t be Ebola, could it? We were going the wrong way — toward the hot zone, not away from it. The man next to me, who had dismissively told me earlier that Ebola was no big deal in Nigeria, fretted over whether he had walked past her seat and touched anything. Someone else wondered whether we would all be quarantined. Two men in protective clothing entered the plane and tended to the woman; to our surprise, after some minutes, we were allowed to leave.
Nigeria is in a web of countries, mostly in West Africa but stretching down to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the current outbreak of Ebola has spread. According to the World Health Organization, the virus has killed more than 3,000 people and infected more than 7,000. Last week, the W.H.O. announced that Ebola could become endemic to West Africa. Nevertheless, after a Liberian-American brought the virus from Monrovia to Lagos, Nigerian authorities managed to keep the number of cases down. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Nigeria is now nearly Ebola-free.
That declaration hasn’t changed how Lagosians think about our new reality, though. We are all on edge, and becoming accustomed to the realization that we are dangerously vulnerable to other people, both close to us and over our borders. It is the slow-burning shock of realizing that Ebola is not going away anytime soon.
From Lagos to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and even in Monrovia, Liberia, a majority of people are carrying on with life as usual — albeit with some modifications. Most people I know now carry hand sanitizer around and religiously cleanse several times a day; they know that, in contaminated areas, chlorine can be used to kill the virus; and, before being allowed to enter public buildings, they submit to checks by security guards armed with “temperature guns” that detect a fever. On a recent excursion to a nightclub, a guard put one of these devices to my head and then told me I had “passed”; at the entrance we were required to take hand sanitizer from a dispenser just to be sure. And in a crowded city of 21 million, we try to touch one another as little as possible (try, anyway). A low level of paranoia is contagious: After a few days of little sleep, I felt slightly sick. Despite the unlikelihood, I immediately wondered if I had caught the virus.
Still, we have our weddings, our celebrations and our gatherings of grief, in the same spirit of mutual joy and pain. Americans and Europeans, following the crisis from afar, don’t seem to understand this. To many of them, Africans seem to be little more than vessels of disease, things to be feared and pitied. After a man plunged a syringe filled with an unknown but seemingly harmless substance into a United States air marshal at the Lagos airport — an apparently random crime by someone who may be mentally ill — the American news media breathlessly speculated about an African terrorist infecting himself with Ebola and spreading the disease abroad.
From my base in Lagos, it is also difficult for me to imagine the horrors that families have experienced, in the villages and city quarters where Ebola has wrought the most havoc. I can only try to feel their confusion and hurt, emotions I would feel had, by a twist of fate, their home been mine. Now that the first Ebola case has been confirmed in the United States, in Dallas, there’s a growing sense that Ebola is not just Africa’s problem.
Last week, I flew to London for a few days, and then on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, across the continent from the heart of the Ebola crisis. After hours in various immigration lines, I triumphantly claimed my transit visa when two airport staff members in white coats stopped me and said they needed to check my temperature. One held the gun to my head and then, a few moments later, frowned at the machine. He said I had an elevated temperature. I felt panic mixed with dread. “I’ve been in line for two hours with a crowd of people in a hot room!” I explained. They asked if I had been vomiting. I told them I hadn’t, and they let me leave.
Not for the first time, I had to face the fact that Ebola has become an ever-present part of life.
Alexis Okeowo is writing a book about people standing up to extremism in Africa.