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A Photo Contest Captures Life with Ebola in West Africa

  • A woman being helped out of a truck
    A woman with symptoms of Ebola arrives at a treatment center and is helped by a nurse in protective gear. She is taken to the “suspects” area, where people are quarantined when they show symptoms of the disease but have not been tested. © Sylvain Cherkaoui/Cosmos/MSF
  • Worker entering a home with disinfection equipment
    A member of a Liberian Red Cross burial team enters a home in Monrovia to disinfect it. After disinfection, the team removes the body of the victim. Safe and dignified burials were an important part of the effort to stop the spread of Ebola in the city. © Victor Lacken/IFRC
  • A women teaching Ebola protection
    A woman in Sierra Leone participates in an education campaign in her community about the Ebola virus. Social mobilization played an important role in stopping the spread of the virus—efforts that were, in many cases, led by women. © Jonathan Bundu
  • Nurses gathered on hospital beds
    Exhausted nurses working in an Ebola treatment unit share beds as they take a break from caring for patients. Many of these nurses were ostracized by their families and communities, worked for months without pay, and never received the hazard pay they were promised.
 © Neil Brandvold
  • Workers carrying a body out of a home
    Members of a Red Cross burial team collect the body of a two-year-old child from his home on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. With the Ebola virus still infectious in the hours and days after death, the work of trained burial teams was key in preventing the spread of the disease. © Aurelie Marrier
  • Rows of newly dug graves
    At Waterloo Cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, people dig gravesites in preparation for the day’s burials. During the Ebola outbreak, up to 75 people were buried in the cemetery each day. Both Christian and Muslim ceremonies were held there, and families were allowed to observe from a safe distance. © Michael Duff
  • People along a river at sunset
    In Kailahun, Sierra Leone, residents gather by a river at dusk. Despite being stricken by the Ebola outbreak, which closed schools and other institutions, a semblance of ordinary life continued. © Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

In March 2014, the largest Ebola outbreak in history began sweeping through West Africa. A year later, it had claimed 10,000 lives and left countless survivors reeling in its wake. But figures alone cannot tell the human stories of those left to rebuild their lives—the decimated families and traumatized yet resilient and courageous communities that pulled through intact.

Bringing those stories into focus was the goal of a photo competition launched by the Open Society Foundations in August 2015. Ebola Through the Lens was conceived as an exhibit that would tell the stories behind the statistics, that could contribute to amplifying the voices and stories of those women, men, and children affected by the disease.

We received over 30 applications from a range of West African and international photojournalists, each of whom captured images of the epidemic’s devastation and the struggles to survive, recover, and rebuild that followed.

In many cases, the worst effects of Ebola were countered by the sheer resilience of the survivors—as individuals, yes, but mostly as communities that were often forced to improvise amid uneven, inadequate, and sometimes nefarious official response. The disease brought to bear deep-rooted flaws in the ways health care is provided in the region. A dearth of trained medical personnel and infrastructure, a lack of focus on prevention and education, structural marginalization of communities, distrust between citizens and governments, corruption, and overall weak governance and accountability in health systems were all key factors that enabled the virus to spread. Indeed, the spread of Ebola could be seen as merely a symptom of these larger structural ailments.

While the international community ultimately did come together to mount a strong public health response, there are important lessons to be drawn from these interventions. Perhaps the main takeaway is that communities were central to fighting the epidemic. At the end of the day, the efforts of local actors stemmed the tide of the disease. Going forward, these actors should be treated as integral advocates of more just, inclusive, and accountable health systems.

Though the region has periodically been declared Ebola-free, the virus continues to resurface, serving as a reminder that governments must take concrete action to address the flaws in their health systems. There are a number of lessons West African governments, as well as the broader international community, can learn from this epidemic, in regards to better coordination, more listening, and better-targeted support. By focusing on prevention, education, and information—and by removing barriers to access—officials in Africa and beyond can be better prepared for the next crisis. 

Ebola Through the Lens will be featured at Photoville, an exhibition in Brooklyn, New York, September 21-25.

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