Linda Harding survived Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war and its Ebola epidemic of 2014. She says there’s no question which one was worse. With Ebola, one could never be sure who the enemy was. To many in Sierra Leone, the enemy was, and still is, Harding and other Ebola survivors like her.
The 42-year-old Harding is a nurse who, during the epidemic, bravely volunteered to care for hundreds of the country’s Ebola patients at a makeshift treatment unit in Freetown, the capital. She contracted the virus tending to a doctor who had himself contracted it from a patient and had started to bleed from the orifices in his face. Two days later, Harding woke up feeling nauseous, with a headache and chills. She packed a plastic bag with a dress and hairbrush and turned herself in to her colleagues.
Harding survived and was declared Ebola-free in December 2014. Despite lingering depression and joint pain common among survivors, she was eager to resume her role as a midwife to friends and neighbors. But when she returned to her village in Waterloo, a city 20 miles southeast of Freetown, she was not given a hero’s welcome. Instead, she was shunned, threatened with death, and driven away.
There are at least 17,000 Ebola survivors like Harding in West Africa, and many face this sort of ruthless stigmatization. Since the beginning of the crisis, health professionals have pushed communities to reintegrate survivors. Although many describe lingering symptoms — 60 percent have eye inflammation called uveitis, and two-thirds report neurological difficulties like insomnia and memory loss — doctors insisted they were Ebola-free.