The CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault recalls covering Ebola from the front lines of the outbreak in Liberia

By Lana Hall

In 2014, CBC correspondent Adrienne Arsenault cut her vacation short to accept a gig covering the worst outbreak of Ebola in history. She barely hesitated.

“I can’t imagine saying no. I don’t think it’s in our DNA to say no,” she said.

“I don’t think we could have lived with ourselves if we’d said no. What a horrible thing that was happening to people, and the world really wasn’t giving a damn.”

On Feb. 2, Arsenault spoke at the Ryerson School of Journalism about her experience as part of an award-winning team that covered the epidemic in Liberia. During her time there, Arsenault, along with producer Stephanie Jenzer and videographer Jean-Francois Bisson, explored the political, economic and health-related consequences of the virus.

Ebola is transmitted through infected body fluids and without adequate treatment, has a high fatality rate. At last count, the death toll sat at nearly 12,000, according to the World Health Organization. Liberia was not the first country to have an outbreak, or even the only country to battle one at that particular time, but it was where the virus had shuttled through such a congested, urban area for the first time.

Combined with Liberia’s crumbling health-care system—which lacked an ambulance service before the outbreak—a crisis emerged, quickly. When the CBC team arrived in the city of Monrovia, the death toll was about 3,400. Within days it had shot to 4,400, a conservative estimate since people were getting ill faster than anyone could keep track.

It wasn’t the first volatile hot spot Arsenault had agreed to go to, but preparing for this assignment required more research than expected.

“Typically in a disaster…you’ll find that you get a phone call and when you go is a matter of how quickly you can pack your bags,” said Arsenault.

“But with Ebola it was about three to four weeks between getting the ‘you need to go’ and actually getting on a plane. And that’s all because Ebola is a slow-motion disaster and it’s complicated to plan for.”

CBC’s insurers had already informed them that they could not guarantee a medical evacuation if someone on the team fell sick in Liberia.

Arsenault and her colleagues conferred with a medical team at Mt. Sinai Hospital, in Toronto, that specializes in infectious disease control. They practised functioning without moving their hands above their shoulders, to reduce the chance of touching eyes or faces.

“We talked about how slow and deliberate you have to be with Ebola,” said Arsenault. At the time, the common wisdom was that bleach killed the virus on surfaces, which meant taking the time to bleach nearly everything multiple times a day: phones, shoes, car handles and camera equipment. They used so much bleach it eventually ate holes through their clothing.

They also had to anticipate the risks of heading into Liberia’s rainy season.

“What happens in the rainy season? You slip. And when you slip, what do you do? You put your hands down. So we’re going to wear gloves. [The] virus lives on wet surfaces longer than it lives on dry surfaces. So I don’t know if someone’s thrown up there. It would be my luck to fall down in it. “

Cautious about eating food prepared by others, they subsisted on military rations for the duration of the trip.

They landed in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, on a dilapidated airstrip, and soon found themselves knee-deep in makeshift treatment clinics and body retrieval teams. The bodies were piling up so rapidly and the concern of transmission so high that traditional burial procedures were abandoned.

“The death ritual is so important,” Arsenault said. “And yet these men would come around in these white jumpsuits and kick down the doors and spray down the walls…and throw the body in the back of a pickup truck and that’s it. So it was horrible for these people.”

The death toll meant a record number of children were sick or orphaned—or both—and Liberians, fearful of contracting infection, would not even touch one another, at a time when they needed it the most.

“No one was hugging the children of Liberia,” said Arsenault.

“There were little kids with their hands in the air, who had lost their family, who were dying for someone to pick them up. No one was touching them.”

“There’s a helplessness attached to being a reporter in a place like that,” said Arsenault. “You want to pick up the kids. You want to bring them home.”

“It’s very hard. But you also have to remember it’s not a cliché to say you’re there to give people a voice.”

Eight days later, the team was on a plane back to Canada, but their problems weren’t over yet. The hate mail had already started rolling in.

“I was getting tweets from people that were unconscionable,” said Arsenault.  “‘How dare you go there and expose Canadians? I hope you get sick and die there.’”

Arsenault said the team was confident they hadn’t been infected, but in the name of “not causing complete mayhem,” they put themselves in a self-imposed quarantine for the first 21 days back in Canada. They holed up in a condo building near the CBC, working and filing their stories in pyjamas and taking each others’ temperatures daily.

On one occasion, Arsenault attempted to buy a jacket at a nearby department store and a fellow customer, recognizing her, loudly gasped and bolted to the other side of the store. After that, Arsenault decided she would leave the condo for one short walk daily, and only after dark.

She said the rise of “fearbola” even made the team briefly question their reporting.

“We thought we had explained it properly and we were stunned by the degree to which people still thought that we had brought this horrible thing to Canada.”

In time, the team emerged from their quarantine and life crawled back to normal. In October 2015, Arsenault, Jenzer and Bisson won an Emmy award for their coverage of the crisis. But even Arsenault isn’t sure they’ve closed the door on that particular story.

“I’d go back if [CBC] would let me,” she said.

“A lot of times, when we’re done with really ugly stories we don’t want to talk about them. But there’s something about Ebola that’s so heartbreaking.”

[[{“fid”:”5456″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“height”:530,”width”:530,”style”:”width: 75px; height: 75px; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]Lana Hall is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.