Liberia Blocks Off Neighborhood In Ebola Quarantine, Sparking Riot

Residents of the capital's West Point neighborhood woke up to learn no one can enter or leave the area for 21 days — the time it takes to determine whether someone exposed to Ebola was infected.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Liberia has been overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak. This country has seen the highest number of deaths so far. Late last night, Liberia's president announced a 9 p.m. curfew in the capital, Monrovia. She also ordered a quarantine of the city's overcrowded West Point neighborhood where earlier this week a holding center for Ebola patients was raided. People dragged patients away. This morning a new riot broke out in that same area, and NPR's Nurith Aizenman witnessed the violence. She joins us on the line now from Monrovia. Nurith, good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So tell us exactly what you saw.

AIZENMAN: Well, I along with the rest of NPR's team here - we were in West Point. We had made it past several blockades that security forces had set up, sealing off the neighborhood. And I should say this is one of the capital's poorest neighborhoods. A lot of people there feel very disenfranchised. They've had very little support as this outbreak has been raging in their midst. And it's an area that basically consists of a finger of land jutting out from central Monrovia into the Atlantic Ocean. It's quite small with only two very narrow roads in. So as we were walking up one of those roads, we saw a contingent of police escorting this local official and her family, including several children, out. And following very close behind them was a throng of furious people - just very angry. They were shouting. They started throwing chunks of concrete and smaller rocks and things escalated very quickly from there. Everyone started racing towards us and security forces around us started firing shots in rapid succession. We saw them holding their assault rifles level at the crowd, not in the air. And at least one person was shot. He was a boy of about 12.

GREENE: And do you know what happened to that boy?

AIZENMAN: We don't know. Tommy Trenchard, the NPR photographer we working with, witnessed it and tried to call for an ambulance. And we heard that someone had picked him up, but we haven't confirmed that.

GREENE: There are any number of reasons why you could imagine people in this neighborhood being incredibly scared and incredibly angry about what's happening in the country right now, but anything specific that you feel like sparked this rioting this morning?

AIZENMAN: Well, it's been a growing situation. Late last night the government announced that West Point was going to be quarantined, and they say they're not letting anyone enter or leave for at least 21 days. That's how long it takes to know if someone who was exposed to another person with Ebola may have become infected, themselves. So the people in West Point woke up this morning to find out that their community is being completely blocked off. They're being told you have this deadly and highly infectious disease running through your neighborhood, and you can not leave.

GREENE: So if you're describing a place that's being literally sealed off, how are people getting food and supplies to sustain themselves?

AIZENMAN: I spoke with the minister of the interior this morning, and he said that the government will be supplying food rations. But by late morning, people were already starting to panic over whether this was going to happen. They were shouting we need to get out. We need food. So when police arrived to escort this local official's family out, I think it was just the last straw. Now, government officials say that they were bringing out that family because their home was threatened.

GREENE: Nurith, why exactly did the government choose this West Point neighborhood for quarantine?

AIZENMAN: Ebola has been spreading in West Point with particular speed. As you mentioned, on Saturday an angry mob stormed a holding facility that the government had set up in the neighborhood for people suspected of having Ebola. People were very upset because the government had not explained why it was setting up that facility. You know, when a group like Doctors Without Borders - an aid group like them opens a center, they spend a lot of time laying the groundwork with the community, getting people's consent. That was not done with this government holding facility. They were also bringing in people with suspected Ebola from other neighborhoods, and they weren't offering supportive care there. The center essentially just became a dumping ground for people with Ebola. So when it was raided on Saturday, seventeen patients who were there were either carried off or forced to flee into the neighborhood where it's likely that they came into contact with many others. And Ebola is highly contagious. It's spread through direct contact with bodily fluid, including not just blood and vomit, but of sweat of an infected person. So there's no knowing how many more people have now been infected.

GREENE: We've been speaking to NPR's global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman. She's reporting from Monrovia in a chaotic and tense scene in the neighborhood of West Point that is under a strict quarantine right now to contain the Ebola outbreak. And there was rioting this morning. Nurith, thank you.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome, David.

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