With Ebola's death toll surging and a top United Nations official declaring that "the rate of acceleration is now picking up dramatically," Liberian officials have been making dire pronouncements about the deepening crisis in their country.
At a news conference Thursday, finance minister Amara Konneh said Liberia is at "war with an enemy we don't see." Two days earlier, the Ebola-ravaged country's defense minister, Brownie Samukai, delivered a harrowing warning of his own.
"Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence," Samukai told the U.N. Security Council. "The deadly Ebola virus has caused a disruption of the normal functioning of our state."
Ebola, he added, "is now spreading like wildfire, devouring everything in its path. The already weak health infrastructure of the country has been overwhelmed."
Although the minister's assertion was unusual in its severity, the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has indeed created a dire situation for the current government of Liberia. But is it truly a serious threat to the the country's existence?
The U.N. special envoy to Liberia, Karin Landgren, seems to agree with Samukai, at least to an extent. Landgren told the U.N. Security Council this week that "Liberians are facing their gravest threat since war," referring to two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that left more than 250,000 dead. Those bloody conflicts completely destabilized the country, and Liberia was still recovering when the current Ebola outbreak began.
Landgren warned the Security Council "that the Ebola crisis has become complex, with political, security, economic and social implications that will continue to affect the country well beyond the current medical emergency," according to Global Post.
On Thursday, the International Monetary Fund said Ebola has crippled the mining, agriculture and services sectors Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, Reuters reported.
Despite the increasingly dismal headlines, Christopher Blattman, a Columbia University professor who focuses on economics, politics and policy in developing countries, said it's unlikely that outbreak will bring about the end of Liberia.
"The risk that Liberia as a nation state ends is close to zero," Blattman said in an e-mail. It's not likely to be absorbed by a neighbor or broken up into parts, he said. "This is true for almost any nation, unless (it seems) they share a border with Russia."
There is, however, "a risk that the current regime falls, to be sure," he said. "The defense minister is a politician and so might mix up the welfare of the country with [his] political party." Blattman said there is also "an ever-present risk in almost any new democracy that the constitutional order dissolves, through a coup or a civil war."
Liberia's recent history of war makes such a theoretical possibility unlikely, he noted. "The opposition is not very well organized in Liberia, and I don't perceive a lot of popular support for military leadership."
It's possible that the worst-case scenario for Liberia could change, depending on how the epidemic spreads and how effective efforts to control it -- or at least slow it -- are in the coming weeks. "If a disease outbreak were large enough (which is definitely a risk in Liberia) all bets are off," Blattman said, adding, "This is true in any country."
Liberia is home to more than half of the epidemic's deaths (1,224) and nearly half of all cases (2,046) -- and it's getting worse: On Monday, the World Health Organization declared that cases are "increasing exponentially" in the Ebola-ravaged West African country, which is home to more than 4 million people.
"The demands of the Ebola outbreak have completely outstripped the government’s and partners’ capacity to respond," the WHO warned.
The outbreak and Liberia's efforts to contain it have angered many in the impoverished West African country. As Reuters reported, news of an escaped patient who wandered the streets looking for food after a hospital couldn't feed him prompted bystanders to blame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her government.
"The patients are hungry, they are starving. No food, no water," a "terrified woman" told Reuters. "The government needs to do more. Let Ellen Johnson Sirleaf do more!"
To make things even more difficult for the country, the collective Ebola caseload is soaring, meaning that what exists of Liberia's national effort to combat the outbreak will face an even heavier burden as the virus infects even more people. And it can't keep up: The WHO found that the county containing Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, needs 1,000 beds for Ebola patients urgently. But just 240 beds were available, with 260 coming soon.
Officials have acknowledged that they probably aren't even seeing the full extent of Ebola's present spread in Liberia, either: "As soon as a new Ebola treatment facility is opened, it immediately fills to overflowing with patients, pointing to a large but previously invisible caseload," according to the WHO.
Compounding the problem are the infections and deaths of scores of medical workers in a country whose health-care system was already stretched thin. Before the Ebola outbreak began, Liberia -- a country with a population roughly equal to Kentucky's, about 4.4 million -- had just one doctor per 100,000 people. In Kentucky, as of 2007, there were about 232 doctors per each 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
With projections of the disease's spread unreliable and inconsistent (the WHO has said the total number of infections in West Africa could reach 20,000; at least one long-term model put the number north of 100,000), it's hard to tell exactly just how big the threat is to Liberia. But a London epidemiologist who is studying Ebola's spread in Monrovia has said that the rapidly spreading virus has the potential to infect the majority of Liberia's population, according to Britain's Channel 4 News.
"We are overwhelmed," Sophie Jane, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, told AFP on Wednesday at an Ebola unit in Monrovia. "The patients keep coming in (huge) numbers."
Although the dire predictions remain just that -- predictions -- the fact that the WHO and Liberia's own government are sounding the alarm so loudly is doing little to calm people in the country. Residents in Monrovia, according to AFP, "described an atmosphere of fear paralyzing daily life" there, particularly after the WHO's prediction of a spike in Ebola infections.
"I am afraid," 45-year-old Kluboh Johnson said, according to AFP. "I don't know what to do now actually. Where are we going? Are we all going to die? If WHO can say this kind of thing it means we are finished."