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Citizen Patrols Guard Borders From Ebola


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

More states here in the United States are choosing to enforce quarantines for doctors returning to this country after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. West African countries have their own quarantines. This past week, Gregory Warner spent time in Cote d'Ivoire. It's a country that has managed to keep the virus out. There they isolate not just doctors but anyone coming from an Ebola-infected country. Gregory Warner joins us now. So Greg, tell us where you are and what's happening there.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, I'm in Abidjan outside a hotel restaurant, so I hope you don't hear too much noise from there. I'm of course very far from the border with Liberia and Guinea. But even this morning, just after the taxi driver took my money, he squirted his hands with sanitizer. So it shows the mood here. He told me he was just following protocols by the government. No shaking hands. Washing hands frequently. Don't eat bushmeat. These are all measures that have been imposed by the government to contain an outbreak if Ebola shows up. But again, there's no case of Ebola yet here.

MARTIN: Why is that? How has Cote d'Ivoire managed to keep Ebola out of the country at this point? I mean, there's been a case in Spain, obviously here in the U.S. there have been a few cases.

WARNER: Nobody has a good answer. I hear anecdotally that enrollment in churches has gone up in Cote d'Ivoire. People are trying to thank God for not having a case.

One thing, though, that is clear is that the Ivoirian government has not only shut the official border with Liberia and Guinea but it's also mobilized these committees of farmers to watch all these unofficial border crossings. So we're talking about, like, a little path that goes through the forest that connects the two countries.

I have been on one of those paths. I practically walked into Liberia. So I can tell you how easy it is, normally. But now with these former committees keeping watch, they will report anyone who comes over, and I mean anyone.

So if you're Ivoirian and you popped over to attend a funeral for a few hours, you try to come back, you cannot come back in. You are in Ebola land until the borders resume opening.

Now if you do happen to get back in in some other way and meet the right authority, you might be quarantined for 21 days. But again, it's a very - it's a zero-tolerance policy. And it's obviously had a huge effect on these border economies which are very tightly tied together.

And it's heightened suspicions, too. I mean, practically every day there's a manhunt for someone believed to have snuck over the border. Inevitably it's a false alarm. But health authorities tell me, you know, they'd rather have these false alarms so that when a real case comes they'll be ready.

MARTIN: So can you make a causal connection? I mean, this isolation strategy, quarantining anyone who goes to an Ebola-stricken country regardless of whether or not they've had contact with anyone with Ebola. Do Ivoirians credit that with their ability to keep the virus at bay?

WARNER: I mean, Ivoirians will credit it. Definitely international health officials will not. They will say that closing the borders like this only stigmatizes people with the disease. So every time you organize a manhunt and you kind of enforce this policy, you're actually pushing people into hiding 'cause people will find a way across the border.

The pressure in Liberia and Guinea to flee is increasing. And if people feel that they're being hunted, they'll hide out and they'll spread the disease even more before authorities find out about them. That's the argument.

I haven't heard of that happening, of course, and I haven't even heard of attacks on Guineans and Liberians. But I am hearing that people with malaria are afraid to go to the hospital presenting fever, otherwise they feel that they'll quarantined.

So there is a considerable amount of fear. Health authorities will say that fear is a good thing. It's causing people to wash their hands and to sanitize. So it's a double-edged sword.

MARTIN: You've spent some time in this Cote d'Ivoire now. You've talked to a lot of people. Has anything else struck you?

WARNER: One thing that struck me is bushmeat. I guess I got the impression that bushmeat was a kind of poor man's food eaten by villagers on the edge of the forest. In restaurants in Ivory Coast it's actually the most expensive thing on the menu. It's kind of like, you get your chicken, your beef, and your rabbit. The rabbit will always be the most expensive. So will the bushmeat be the most expensive.

Now that bushmeat is forbidden to hunt or consume. So of course these restaurants are hurting and so are the hunters.

MARTIN: Gregory Warner. He joined us from the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, Abidjan. Greg, thanks so much.

WARNER: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.