Ebola Epidemic Touches the Ramapo Community

Photo Courtesy of Elaine Patterson

Abdulai Swaray spent his entire childhood living in Sierra Leone; at the time the country was steeped in suffering at the hands of a raging civil war. Years later, Swaray made a connection with the Ramapo community through the Sierra Leone study abroad program and now attends Ramapo, studying information technology.

Over his summer vacation Swaray returned to Sierra Leone to find his country once again in turmoil, shaken by a much different aggressor: the Ebola virus.

“I was in Sierra Leone when the outbreak started and I was not able to enjoy my summer vacation,” said Swaray. “I have all my families in Sierra Leone and I also have a charitable organization in Sierra Leone, which I'm doing to help out people in various communities in Pujehun District … I have never wanted to see my people suffer again.”

According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus is transmitted from wild animals to humans and spreads within the human population through the transmission of bodily fluids. The recent epidemic in Africa is the largest Ebola outbreak in history. Ebola can be cured through treatment; however, there is currently no approved vaccination. Exacerbating the issue is the lack of knowledge about preventative measures in the area. The average survival rate of persons infected with Ebola is 50 percent.

Because of the dangers presented by this disease, Ramapo’s annual study abroad to Sierra Leone was relocated to Ghana. The nursing program has been running this trip since 2008, which was thwarted when the International Risk Committee deemed it too dangerous.

According to Kathleen Burke, the assistant dean of nursing programs, the Ramapo community has a strong link to Sierra Leone because of the nursing program’s partnership with the school of nursing in Sierra Leone.

“We’ve had students from Sierra Leone come here and we’ve had graduate students who’ve lived on campus, because we’re increasing the capacity of the nursing program … This is a real act of partnership and these are our colleagues. They have become our friends and it’s devastating to see the strife that they find themselves in,” said Burke

Burke, along with Dr. Elaine Patterson, a nursing professor here at Ramapo, have been working with Swaray and his organization, Young Vision Africa, as well as other charitable organizations, most notably Doctors Without Borders, to help spread awareness about Ebola.

“When I first heard about Ebola, I never knew what it actually meant to someone being infected, until the day I decided to visit one the health centers of Ebola victims … It is very sad and the hardest experience I have ever encountered after the civil war,” said Swaray. “From that end, I started doing some sensitization and helping out people with some preventive materials.”

The link between Sierra Leone and Ramapo goes beyond the nursing program, as some students and staff have family members and friends in the area. Professor of sociology Erin Augis has family in Senegal, a country very near Sierra Leone. According to Augis, people in the U.S. have a responsibility to assist those devastated by Ebola.

“We, as Westerners, should not simply shake our heads in dismay at yet another misfortune that has befallen Africa, but instead, endeavor to consider global neoliberal economic processes that have greatly compounded poverty in Africa the last 50 years,” she offered.

According to Swaray, one of the biggest contributors to the Ebola outbreak is the lack of food. Because the country has been on lockdown, it has been difficult for outreach programs to bring in supplies. With little food coming in, those fighting the virus have become even weaker due to their lack of sustenance.

This pressing need for assistance and the close personal relationships the students and faculty of Ramapo have formed with the people of Sierra Leone contribute to Burke, Patterson and Swaray’s mission to educate the Ramapo community on the Ebola virus and urge them to donate what they can to the cause. Because of the connections the Ramapo community has formed with those in Sierra Leone, Patterson assures that any money given to her or her colleagues for the cause will go directly to those in need.

“This condition exists. It is very serious,” Patterson said. “We’re not just getting on a bandwagon to talk about something that’s happened globally. We have a direct connection.”