It all began with a large hollow tree.
Two-year-old Emile Ouamouno had been fond of playing inside the tree, which was near his home in Meliandou – a village in the heart of the Guinean jungle. But other life had also discovered its cosy confines: bats. Children would sometimes catch them there, before roasting them for dinner.
Then Emile got sick. On the 28 December 2013, he succumbed to a violent and mysterious illness. His mother, sister and grandmother were next. And that was it – after the funeral, the disease gradually began to spread.
By 23 March 2014, there had been 49 cases and 29 deaths – and scientists confirmed that it was Ebola. Over the next three and a half years, the world looked on in horror as the virus claimed more than 11,325 lives. But while this was going on, another tragedy was unfolding.The outbreak severely strained the resources of local healthcare services – workers died, large numbers of hospitals closed and those that remained open were overwhelmed with tackling Ebola itself. In the three most affected countries – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – people began avoiding healthcare at all costs. They were afraid of this mysterious new disease, but they were also fearful of doctors. With their sinister white protective overalls and association with sudden death, healthcare workers had become heavily stigmatised. People didn’t want to go near them.
As a result, a 2017 analysis found that the pandemic led to a dramatic drop in the popularity of medical care. The number of pregnant women seeking help with childbirth was down by 80%, vaccination rates plummeted and there were 40% fewer admissions of children with malaria. Ironically, after an intense international effort to combat the pandemic, this collateral damage was more severe than the disease itself.