MONROVA, Liberia — Riot police raced to central Liberia on Saturday to put down a demonstration by crowds who had blocked the country’s busiest highway to protest the government’s delay in collecting bodies of Ebola victims.
The mounting unease in Liberia, where nearly 300 people already have died from the gruesome disease, raises the specter of social unrest amid growing fear and frustration.
Several bodies had been lying by the roadside for two days in the town of Weala, about 50 miles from the capital, Monrovia, residents said.
The Ebola virus spreads through the bodily fluids of its victims and many have fallen ill after touching or handling corpses. Liberia’s government has ordered that all Ebola victims should be cremated amid community opposition to neighborhood burials for fear of further contamination.
Information Minister Lewis Brown sounded a warning on state radio Saturday, telling the demonstrators “police are on their way to you.”
“Security people are on their way to put things under control,” Brown said. “We don’t want people taking the law into their own hands.”
The latest Ebola outbreak is the largest and longest ever recorded for the disease and so far has killed at least 961 people, according to figures released by the U.N. health agency Friday. This outbreak emerged in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.
The situation is particularly dire, though, in Liberia where Doctors Without Borders has described the conditions as “catastrophic.”
“There are reports of dead bodies lying in streets and houses,” said the group’s emergency coordinator in Liberia, Lindis Hurum, in a recent update.
At least 40 health workers in Liberia have contracted Ebola in recent weeks, and most of the city’s hospitals are closed, Hurum said.
On Saturday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was to meet with other health workers at City Hall in Monrovia.
“The president wants to express the collective gratitude of the entire nation to our health care workers who have continued to make tremendous sacrifice for this country and people,” Brown, the information minister, said.
State radio broadcaster Smith Toby called health workers “front-line soldiers” leading the fight against Ebola.
Liberia has launched “Operation White Shield” under which soldiers are deployed in different locations and at checkpoints outside the capital to discouraged the movement of people.
The deployment is part of Sirleaf’s declaration of emergency to exert more control in fighting the disease.
Health workers were Saturday deployed alongside soldiers at checkpoints to take the temperature of commuters. People are to be blocked from leaving from one point to another if their temperature is above normal.
Also Saturday, a Catholic humanitarian group based in Spain said that a Congolese nun who was working in Liberia has died of Ebola. The San Juan de Dios hospital order said Sister Chantal Pascaline died despite the care she received