Ebola and its foes take sharp focus in powerful New York Times photo essay

We think we know Ebola. We've read about it. We've seen news videos about it. We may be able to find the nations on a map that are ravaged by it. But we have little idea what it really does to people.

But we can get a glimpse in "Braving Ebola," a New York Times photo essay out of rural Liberia. The text and photos by Daniel Berehulak literally illustrate how the virus can infect not only bodies but minds and relationships.

With the macabre dateline of Oct. 31 -- Halloween -- the feature is a beautiful, fearful view of the many dimensions in which a plague like Ebola can strike. The spare, 247-word intro starts with the dread of the patients, not only of Ebola but the alien-looking medics who have come to treat it. But it ends with a ray of hope:

The patients arrive, at first fearful of the people in spacesuits whose faces they cannot see. They wait for test results, for the next medical rounds, for symptoms to appear or retreat. They watch for who recovers to sit in the courtyard shade and who does not. They pray.
The workers offer medicine, meals, cookies and comfort. They try to make patients smile. Very, very carefully, they start IVs. They spray chlorine, over and over, and they dig graves. They pray.
These are the people of one Ebola clinic in rural Liberia. Run by the American charity International Medical Corps, the clinic rose in September out of a tropical forest. It now employs more than 170 workers, a mix of locals and foreigners, some of them volunteers. There are laborers trying to make money for their families, university students helping because Ebola has shut down their schools, and American doctors who, after years of studying outbreaks, are seeing Ebola’s ravages in person for the first time. A mobile laboratory operated by the United States Navy has set up shop at a shuttered university. Now, test results come back in a matter of hours instead of several days.
Some of the workers will stay a few more weeks, or until the end of the year. Many of the Liberians vow to remain until the disease is gone, when they can go back to their old jobs or resume their former lives. They work toward a time after Ebola.

Following the intro are 20 capsule interviews, with large, black-and-white portraits. The pictures themselves are brilliant essays. Rather than pose people stiffly, Berehulak shoots them in various postures: a weary doctor with hands on hips, a gravedigger swinging a pick, a nurse wiping her brow, a survivor on his knees with eyes closed and hands raised.

And the interviews bring out sides of an epidemic that you may have never considered.

* A doctor from Boston says he sometimes dreams of being an Ebola patient himself. "I’ve had dreams where I’m in the ward without any gear, just standing there in my pants and shirt."

* A sanitation coordinator throws his head back and laughs. "It's the only way to succeed," he says.

* A security guard stays at his post even at the risk of getting sick himself: "I'm here as long as Ebola is in this country. If I die, my country will have the record of me."

* A muscular microbiologist from Maryland flexes his biceps: "I'm the guy who kills the virus."

* A sanitation supervisor says he sometimes visits on his days off just to "say hi to the patients," to reassure them that there is life outside the compound.

* A nursing supervisor from Kenya voices frustration at not being able to show more sympathy: "You want to take off the mask so that they see that you're feeling what they're going through. But you can't."

* A sprayer -- who applies bleach to the rooms, garbage, toilet, even corpses -- says he had to talk down his mother panic at his volunteerism: "It is better that we volunteer ourselves to be trained and combat the virus."

Berehulak also includes the spiritual dimension of the people dealing with Ebola. Several people say they encourage others to pray. A survivor of the disease tells his reaction to the virus: "Over the three weeks, I encouraged myself by exercising. I jogged around. I read the Bible. I prayed." And a hygienist strives to reassure patients that "the sickness can happen to everybody. It is not your fault."

The spiritual content is made an organic part of the story, rather than a discrete section. That's as it should be, I think. These people are in the struggle -- either as patients or healers -- because they are people, not because they're religious. But for many of them, faith is an integral part of how they think and feel and act.

The capsule interviews are especially effective online. Click an (already large) thumbnail, and you get a fullsize photo and the text block that goes with it. Then you can either mouse-click to the other photos or simply tap the left or right arrows on your keyboard.

We thought we knew Ebola. We'd been soaked in the gut-level staples of the reporting: dying victims, dingy hospital wards, wailing widows and orphans, people attacking health workers whom they thought were actually spreading the illness.

Now we know the virus a little better. Even more important, we know its patients and foes. These people are more than victims. They are fighting back, with prayer, hard work, courage, idealism, even optimism. They deserve our support, our respect, and our admiration.

A hearty "Well Done" to Daniel Berehulak and the New York Times.

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