My dad comes to visit every summer like clockwork — typically during July and August. You see, my dad lives in a different country. We are from Sierra Leone, a tiny country in West Africa.
Each year, I look forward to seeing my father, but this year, his visit was different. I’m a new mom (yay!) and my father would be meeting my daughter for the first time. He would get to spend a few weeks with his new granddaughter, and we could get some precious family photos of them together.
Oh yes, and there was one other difference: the Ebola outbreak.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I wondered how exactly I would handle the delicate conversation of, “Do you know if you have been exposed to the Ebola virus?” In my neck of the woods, politeness and respect are revered. Would my father think I was disrespectful for asking? Would he get angry?
But this wasn’t just mild curiosity. I have a newborn, for goodness sake. According to the World Health Organization, Ebola kills up to 90 percent of those infected. There is no way my newborn baby’s nonexistent immune system could handle the virus.
We Africans often complain about the Western media’s portrayal of Africa. The positive aspects of the region are largely ignored, the news crews only show up when there is a problem, and those problems are often sensationalized and generalized.
By questioning my father’s decision to visit, would I be buying into the media’s depiction of Ebola in Sierra Leone? Or were my fears simply those of a concerned parent? If I did not have a newborn, would I have been as nervous about possible exposure?
Hard questions, but in the end I chose not to deter him from visiting. I decided my dad is intelligent enough and caring enough that if he had any fears about being exposed to the virus, he would alert me. I will admit that I watched him like a hawk for the first few days — I’m not sure if he noticed, but I was definitely on alert. I learned the symptoms of Ebola so well, I could recite them on command if needed.
But the whole thing did raise some questions in my mind about how those of us — Sierra Leonean’s, Liberians, Guineans — who are living away from our homelands should handle visitors during the Ebola crisis. What exactly is the protocol?
I have friends who voluntarily quarantined visiting family members for 21 days before allowing them to connect with their immediate family. My sister told me a funny story of my brother-in-law bathing in chlorine after being notified that a church member he interacted with had recently returned from Liberia. My husband, who is also a Sierra Leonean, has a somewhat radical system of handling the situation: AVOID ALL PUBLIC GATHERINGS of our people in our not-so-large city of Columbus.
I asked him how long the avoidance should last. One month, a year? What is enough time? Do I become paranoid about friends and family holding my 4-month-old daughter? Even more paranoid, should I ask anyone who approaches my child to please use hand sanitizer and chorine wipes before touching her?
Will we be creating further hysteria within our community with this approach? If people from other countries followed suit and started avoiding Sierra Leone, what would happen to our people?
These are big questions with no clear answers … at least none yet.
As a parent, I find myself making tough choices every day regarding what I should expose my child to. Just the other day, I read a story about a kid dying from the enterovirus D68 and had to stop myself from freaking out when some school-aged kids asked to play with my little girl.
But we cannot live our lives in a bubble. There is no way I can completely shield my daughter from all possible risk of infection … Ebola or otherwise. Every family needs to make the decisions that are right for them, based on the information available, and while we always need to keep our children’s safety in mind, we shouldn’t necessarily go to such extremes that we rob them of valuable life experiences.
For this reason, I’m glad that we didn’t let fear get in the way of my father’s visit. He stayed for six weeks, we had a lovely time, and my daughter’s life is bigger, better, and richer because of the time she spent with her grandpa.More On