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Raffique Shah


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Ebola: panic paralyses nation

By Raffique Shah
October 19, 2014

Port of Spain, November 31, 2014: Reports that two persons stricken with the deadly Ebola virus were identified and isolated, one at the capital city's general hospital, the other at the Mount Hope facility, have paralysed Trinidad and Tobago, literally shutting down the country.

There is an eerie silence across the country, at least those parts that this reporter reached by car, restricted as I was since petrol stations, like most essential services, ceased to function last Friday when rumours that Ebola had arrived sent the nation into panic.

Within minutes of several radio stations announcing the "unconfirmed reports", Trinidadians abandoned their jobs and rushed to supermarkets and other food stores, stripping the shelves of everything edible. Most of them did not have to pay for their purchases because employees had also joined in stocking up on food and water.

Schools closed, courts and government offices emptied, shops closed, police officers were seen fleeing the city, and traffic gridlock gripped all exits from Port of Spain. As I tried to ascertain how widespread the chaos was, I telephoned colleagues and friends in other towns and districts, all of whom were also rushing to reach the safety of their homes.

It was bad, I gathered. There was one-way traffic throughout the country: homeward bound. Efforts to reach medical personnel to confirm or deny the reports of Ebola victims were futile. They, too, were busy heading home.

I got one prominent doctor and asked how could he and his colleagues abandon the hospitals during this grave crisis. "Grave is correct!" he muttered. "You want to do the job? Go to the hospital, nah! Besides, the Government has not agreed to the $10,000 a day danger money we asked for, and the $10 million risk insurance. Ah gone!"

By Friday night, the city that never sleeps was a ghost town. Heading to Ariapita Avenue where I thought I would encounter "Ebola parties" (well, there were "curfew parties" during two emergencies) and get the pulse of the people, I met shuttered doors and darkness.

A lone bake-and-shark vendor was excited to see another human being: "Borse, yuh must be hungry...mow many yuh buying?" I ordered two and asked, "How come you outside? You Ďent fraid Ebola?" "Borse, the way I catching hell, Ebola cyah kill me...I done dead already!"

The Prime Minister addressed the nation on the lone functioning television station. She was dressed in a peach Pierre Cardin hazmat suit with golden Gucci boots and Oakley goggles. From the sanctum of her home, she said that her government's plans for the arrival of Ebola had "kicked in", and citizens should not be afraid.

"All will be well. I am advised by the Minister of Health that the two victims are as isolated as can be...not even nurses or doctors or other patients are close to them. We shall conquer Ebola much like we did our political enemies. Stay calm...your Prime Minister is running the country from my bedroom."

Hmmm. I call the Health Ministerómaybe he, being a doctor, is up on the ward leading the charge. "Ah, Doc," I say when he answers, "have you contained the Ebola attack?" I hear voices and music in the background: we ready, we ready, we ready. "How de hell you get my number?" Slam!

I retire that night at the city hotel where I have camped out to cover the crisis, one of four or five guests, the rest foreigners, one from an international press agency. No staff is on duty, so we have the run of the place, quite literally, including preparing our meals.

Saturday morning, I strike up a conversation with the AFP correspondent. He tells me he spent most of Friday night trying to assess how the country was responding to the outbreak, which, he stressed, had yet to be confirmed. In a drive that took him through east, central and south Trinidad, other than stray dogs and the odd vagrant, there was no sign of normal Trini lifeómusic, drinking, liming. People had battened down behind locked doors.

"But the PM said last night that the two victims had been isolated," I defended. "Well, seeing that the entire Cabinet fled the city by helicopter when they first heard the rumour, I don't know that she knows the truth. And if isolation means abandonment, then sure, if there are indeed victims, they are very isolated."

Ah shame now, eh, but I must stand for country if not for king or queen. "Look, Ebola is a nasty one...the government and people right to run and hide..."

"Hay, admit it: you people are cowards!' he snarled. "In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, which are poverty-stricken countries with minimal services, fewer than 0.001 per cent of people are infected, fewer than 20 per cent of victims die, most recover with no medication, and they are facing the crisis head-on!"

More shameóbut I must defend my country. "Look, buddy, we will, come out of this crisis with fewer deaths than anywhere else..."

"Fewer deaths from Ebola, my friend," he retorted. "But deaths from fright will kill allyuh!"

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