Will no one help Liberia’s forgotten Ebola orphans?

Liberians under quarantine last week due to the death of more than 20 residents of their village, Jene Wondi. Photograph: Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA

In their single-room house, in a Monrovia back street, 16-year-old Promise Cooper and her three younger sisters slept beside their father’s corpse for three days. After hearing rumours about her sick father, neighbours had turned away Promise’s pleas for help lest she pass Ebola on to them. Eventually, health officials removed the body, along with the Coopers’ belongings, including their bedding and clothing, and then disinfected the house with chlorine spray. The Cooper girls were left with just the clothes they were wearing and one cup of rice a generous neighbour had nervously prodded towards their door with a stick.

Promise’s story is far from unique – hundreds of stories like this have been created each month in Monrovia since May. And, with certainty, there will be thousands more before Ebola is done.

You would have thought that international donors, those who care for people most in need, would have long since mobilised for such children. They haven’t. There is not one major charity doing any work on a large scale for Ebola orphans in Monrovia. I know this because I spent all last week not just in the poorest slums where Ebola is spreading but also traipsing around all the big charities’ Monrovia offices, trying to figure out who, if anyone, was doing anything for orphans.

Where is the urgency? While children such as Promise and her sisters languish, a group of charities in Monrovia known as “the Psychosocial Cluster” devoted, alongside the ministry of health, a whole day last week to deciding what questions should appear on an “orphans and vulnerable child assessment form”.

Some of the solutions they are developing are also worrying. They look smart on paper but seem divorced from the realities of the limited capacity on the ground and, in particular, the sheer scale of the orphan crisis. For instance, there is a focus on “interim care centres” for orphans. While there are hundreds of orphans there are only two such centres. And neither is more than half full because there is nobody in the “Ebola response system” to identify orphaned and vulnerable children, nobody to provide any guidance or support,and definitely nobody to show them the way to the centres. Moreover, traumatised children do not want to be in a centre, they want to be at home.

Equally worrying was an announcement at the “Psychosocial Cluster” meeting that the official number of orphans in Greater Monrovia sits at 157. The records alone of the charity I work for document almost 500 Ebola orphans. And we’re certain that there are many more still.

Promise and her sisters, thankfully, are among those 500 children now being cared for. They have fresh bedding, a bag of rice, clothes and comfort. But this is just the first step . An adult care-giver and some form of sustainable livelihood support will be needed soon.

I have travelled to West Africa on countless occasions. I have not cried before. Last week, I cried every day. There is unimaginable sadness and suffering here. Fighting Ebola is one thing but the human consequence of Ebola is its own horrific tragedy. Addressing this – not just containing Ebola – is how we show we care about West Africans. Far too little, too feebly, is being done. This must change – urgently.

Chloe Brett is Liberia Programme director of Street Child

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