MONROVIA, Liberia — The family of the sick man, who had endured Ebola’s telltale symptoms for six days, took him by taxi to treatment centers here in the capital twice, only to be turned back at the gate each time for lack of beds. He died at home, his arms thrashing violently and blood spewing out of his mouth, in front of his sons.
“We had to carry him home two times because they could do nothing for us,” said Eric Gweah, 25, as a team of body collectors came to retrieve the corpse of his father, Ofori Gweah, 62. “The only thing the government can do is come for bodies. They are killing us.”
So many Ebola victims are dying at home because of the severe shortage of treatment centers here in Monrovia, Liberia‘s capital, that they are infecting family members, neighbors and others in a ballooning circle of contagion.
Only 18 percent of Ebola patients in Liberia are being cared for in hospitals, holding centers or other settings that reduce the risk of transmission by isolating them from the rest of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unless that rate reaches 70 percent, the center predicted this week, Ebola cases will keep soaring.
In its worst-case estimate, Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the three West African nations hit hardest by the outbreak, could face 1.4 million infections by Jan. 20 — more than 10 percent of their combined populations of about 10.3 million.
In the coming weeks, the United States military will try to overhaul the fight against Ebola in Liberia, home to 1,580 of the 2,800 Ebola deaths so far recorded in West Africa. The 3,000-strong American mission will not treat Ebola patients, but will build as many as 17 treatment centers, with a total of 1,700 beds, and try to train 500 health workers a week.
But building the centers is expected to take weeks and it is unclear who will run them, especially since the disease has decimated Liberia’s already weak health care system and the fear of Ebola has long kept many international aid workers away.
“I’ve worked in many crises for more than 20 years, and it’s the first time I can see a situation that nobody wants to come,” said Jean-Pierre Veyrenche, who is heading the World Health Organization’s efforts to build treatment centers here. “There’s plenty of money, so that’s not the issue. If you look at Haiti, there were about 800 N.G.O.s there.”
“People are afraid to come — that’s it,” he added.
With treatment beds overflowing, the government is often left to simply pick up the bodies of the dead. As its six teams of body collectors crisscross this capital of 1.5 million people, navigating cratered streets left over from the 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, they encounter a city that is likely to remain at the mercy of Ebola for weeks, perhaps months.
Every day, each team retrieves half a dozen to a couple of dozen bodies, delivering them to a crematorium at the end of the day.