MONROVIA, Liberia — Riot police and soldiers acting on their president’s orders used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their Liberian slum Wednesday, trying to contain the Ebola outbreak that has killed 1,350 people across West Africa.
Hundreds of slum residents clashed with the gunmen, furious at being blamed and isolated by a government that has failed to quickly collect dead bodies from the streets. One 15-year-old boy was injured trying to cross the barbed wire as security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowd.
The World Health Organization said the death toll is rising most quickly in Liberia, which now accounts for at least 576 of the fatalities. At least 2,473 people have been sickened across West Africa, which is now more than the caseloads of all the previous two-dozen Ebola outbreaks combined.
The U.N. health agency also warned of shortages of food, water and other essential supplies in West Africa’s cities.
And if it’s bad in these capitals, it’s much worse inside West Point, a densely populated slum surrounded by floating sewage that occupies a half-mile-long peninsula in the seaside capital.
West Point suffers from government neglect even in the best of times, and mistrust of authorities is rampant. Open defecation is a major problem. Drinking water is carted in on wheelbarrows, and people depend on a local market for food.
Now many of the market’s traders are stuck inside, prices have doubled and “the community is in disarray,” slum resident Richard Kieh said.
“Why are you ill-treating people like this? How can we take this kind of government to be peaceful? It is not fair – we are human,” said another resident, Mohamed Fahnbulleh.
Ebola is only spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people experiencing symptoms. Those at greatest risk are doctors and nurses and people who handle the dead. Still, victims often suffer gruesome deaths, bleeding from the eyes, mouth and ears, and the fatality rate of about 50 percent has provoked widespread panic.
West Point has been a flash point. Days earlier, residents ransacked a screening center where people in contact with Ebola victims were being monitored. They dragged out sheets and mattresses covered with blood and feces, accusing the government of bringing sick people into their neighborhood. Dozens of potential carriers were taken elsewhere in the city.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf responded by imposing a nighttime curfew and ordering “quarantines” of West Point and Dolo Town, another densely populated slum outside the capital. She also ordered movie theaters, nightclubs and other gathering places shut, stopped ferry service to the peninsula and deployed a coast guard boat to patrol the surrounding waters.