MONROVIA, Liberia — On a dirt field between two tall plum trees, barefoot young women played a surprisingly ferocious game of kickball one evening this week. Sweating in the heat and humidity despite the approach of dusk, they battled with the pent-up energy of teens who have been stuck at home too long.
A crowd of 100, maybe more, gathered to watch. Huge speakers blared the Ghanaian hip-hop of Sarkodie, making conversation nearly impossible. The spectators stood close together. Some danced, some moved more subtly to the music. Had there been food and drink, this gathering in Monrovia’s Capitol Hill neighborhood could have been a block party.
Barely six or seven weeks ago, it also would have been impossible.
Near the height of the Ebola epidemic in September, this field was always empty. As the virus tore unchecked through neighborhood after neighborhood, schools were closed, workplaces were shuttered, sporting events were canceled, crowds at the markets thinned and informal gatherings like the one Tuesday were not to be attempted.
But now, ever so slowly, signs of normalcy are returning to the capital. With the rate of new Ebola infections down, traffic is up. Boys play soccer and girls play kickball, less afraid of skin-to-skin contact than they were a few short weeks ago. Businesses are welcoming back a few workers—not many, and not all at once, but some. Discussions have begun about when and how to reopen the schools without reigniting the epidemic. Perhaps in January, some say.
The reduction in tension is palpable. Visitors wear short-sleeve shirts now, less fearful of a chance encounter with the virus. At treatment centers, there are no desperately ill children lying on the filthy concrete outside, no visibly sick adults sitting in the dirt or the back of a taxi, waiting for hours to get in. There is no one waiting.
Many beds are empty, and new ones are about to open. Redemption Hospital, the symbol of Liberia’s inability to keep up with the sick and the dead, has been closed. So has JFK Hospital’s Ebola unit, a cholera facility that was quickly converted to handle the new disease when it burst from hiding.
“Fear of Ebola now is going down. It was scary for us,” said Mohammed Kanneh, a young man watching the kickball game. “But we cannot forget. We still do the prevention procedures. We still wash our hands.”
Indeed, no one believes Ebola is yet gone. The virus has shown in the past that it can recede, then flare up even more virulently than before. Plastic buckets filled with diluted chlorine seem to be outside the door of every business that can afford one, and security guards rigorously enforce the hand-washing requirement on anyone who tries to enter. There are even more billboards warning people not to take the lethal virus lightly.
“Ebola Na Play-Play,” screams one. Ebola doesn’t mess around.
But children will be kept under wraps for only so long.
“Gradually, the kids are coming together,” said Geovani Brooks, chairman of the Ebola Emergency Task Force in Dolo’s Town, a community of about 15,000 an hour outside Monrovia that was quarantined for 21 days when the virus raged through.
“We are not encouraging that,” Ambrose Wureh, director of the Coalition Against Ebola, quickly interjected. “There is a need to still wait.”
The truth is that many Liberians never retreated very far from the virus, even in September and early October, when Ebola was doing its worst damage. In an amazing display of courage, resolve or lack of options, many went on about their lives, accepting the risk of infection by riding in taxis or jostling in the market.
Their odds were pretty good: In a country of more than 4.1 million people, 6,525 have been infected and 2,697 have died, according to the World Health Organization. But those caught by the virus faced a 60 percent to 90 percent chance of dying, depending on whether they could find a bed at a treatment center, and how far the disease had progressed if they did.
People who were out of work, however, had no money for food and other necessities. Businesses suffered.
“I tried to stay open,” said Amadou D. Barry, a tailor in Monrovia. “Business just went down slowly, slowly, and in the end, it just went off.”
Recently, however, Barry has been able to work a few days a week for part of the day, making suits, mending clothes and selling clothing retail.
“We are feeling the difference,” he said. “Because the information is going around. The reduction [in the number of Ebola cases] is encouraging people to come around.”
Frank Mahoney heads the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team in Liberia. Over lunch one day this week, he described the reaction he and other experts received in neighborhood after neighborhood as they tried to intervene to halt the virus. The experience was a truncated version of the five stages of grief.
First, Mahoney said, came denial. Many people did not believe Ebola was real and wanted no part of outsiders — Westerners, the Liberian government or aid groups — telling them what to do.
Next came recognition, as Ebola began killing their relatives, friends and neighbors.
Finally came a request for help as they realized they could not fight Ebola alone.
They “learn by people dying,” Mahoney said.
Liberians have a greeting they reserve for friends. “How da body?” they say when they run into someone they know. It is essentially: “How are you doing?”
Liberia’s body is beginning to heal. It has a long way to go. It could suffer a relapse at any time. But it is in better shape than it was mere weeks ago, when Ebola had left it weak and waiting for help.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie as Sargo D. The article has been updated.