It didn’t take long after news began to emerge about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that Francisco Perez started receiving urgent calls and messages from friends and family back home in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan.
“Once the Western media picked up on it, people started to remember that I was there, not generically in Africa, but in Sierra Leone, and they’re like, ‘I just heard about this thing called Ebola. Are you safe?’ ” said Perez, a program manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia who works in project planning and grant-writing.
Considered non-essential to combating the outbreak, Perez was flown out of the affected area in August and was home in New York City last month. He said he would be returning to Africa, probably Senegal, where the World Health Organization (WHO) says the outbreak has been “pretty much contained,” at the end of September to resume his work.
“My roommate works on health programs. She’s doing Ebola work. She has to be there. But for me and for my safety it made sense to just pull out. So they told me to get on the next flight, which ended up being to Paris. But it does bring a lot of mixed emotions. I’m happy to be out of harm’s way. But I did leave a lot of friends behind.
“You feel guilty,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot. These are the last people on earth that deserve something like this.”
Perez said his return home after a year away caused a case of reverse culture shock. Especially leaving Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries on the planet, a nation without a single traffic light, and landing in the City of Light.
“You wake up in the morning and you are in Paris. I can order things online. The cab has a touch screen. It feels like you just landed in an episode of the Jetsons,” he said with a laugh.
Perez applauded President Obama’s recent initiative against Ebola. The president announced Sept. 16 the deployment of more than 3,000 U.S. military personnel to the affected countries, including medical professionals and engineers, to help stanch the disease’s spread saying there is an opportunity “to save countless lives.”
On Sept. 23 Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on International Justice and Peace, along with Catholic Relief Services president Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, sent a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice welcoming the Administration’s commitment and urging it to do more. The United Nations has warned that 20,000 people could be infected by November. A recent WHO study suggested that 70 percent of those infected with Ebola in West Africa have died, higher than previously reported.
“I think it’s a very promising step.” Perez said of the U.S. initiative. “But we still need way more. I can’t shake the feeling that if this outbreak had occurred in New York or London it would have been taken care of by now.”
Perez had been in Guinea, considered ground zero for the epidemic, in March and he suspected then the contagion was likely to spread into neighboring countries. Perez said the outbreak could have a catastrophic effect on fragile health care systems in all three countries, extending beyond the immediate emergency itself.
“The story that’s not being told is the health systems are almost in a state of collapse at this point or on the verge of it,” he stressed. “The proximate cause is Ebola but there is so much else going on—all the children that will die of malaria, for example, if they can’t be treated.
“CRS and other health NGOs in Sierra Leone do (malaria) testing where they use rapid diagnostic tests. That requires drawing blood. You can’t ask someone to go out there and draw blood. So all those kids are not being treated. With Ebola one of the highest risk groups are health care professionals. You’re losing doctors, the few doctors there are; you’re losing nurses.”
Public information, Perez said, is key to combating the spread of the deadly virus. One of the reasons the contagion has spread so rapidly is people lack basic information on how to avoid it. Perez said CRS is uniquely positioned to take on this campaign. The organization has a long history of educating people in such areas as personal hygiene as a way of avoiding communicable disease.
“The biggest thing we can do to prevent Ebola is to spread information but that really requires trust,” he said. “People need to be able to trust their government health officials. A lot of what we’re doing is combating myths. We’re already sort of experts in, the technical term is behavioral change communications, and we did this a lot with malaria. We helped people understand where malaria comes from, how to prevent it. So we’ve been doing this for a long time.”
In Guinea, CRS has reached more than 30,000 people. Volunteers have been going door-to-door, handing out hygiene kits and information about how the virus is spread and what to do to prevent it. Similar messages are being delivered in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
CRS also works closely with Catholic health facilities in the three countries, from providing training to providing materials such as proper gloves and masks for medical professionals. All such items are in short supply. “You can’t ask a nurse or a doctor to show up if there are no gloves, there is no disinfectant, if there are no masks,” noted Perez. A major focus for CRS is getting these facilities fully equipped.
Indeed it has been quite an eventful “rookie season” for Perez, 30, a parishioner at Ascension on Manhattan’s Upper West Side who was recruited last year by CRS right out of Princeton University, where he graduated with a master’s in public administration. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard. The son of Dominican immigrant parents, he has four sisters who all went to college on full scholarships.
He acknowledged he had a vague idea of what CRS did overseas as a youngster, mostly because of the organization’s annual Lenten Rice Bowl campaign. But he didn’t really think about the organization again until the recruiter approached him on campus, even though he had developed a deep social conscience growing up, for which he credits Father John Duffell, the former Ascension pastor who is now administrator of Blessed Sacrament, Manhattan.
“He really emphasized Catholic social teaching. I did my confirmation rather late. I did it as a junior and senior in high school and he really spoke to us about Catholic social teaching and the preferential option for the poor, solidarity and fighting for justice,” Perez recalled.
So when the recruiter approached him, it seemed providential.
“I’m inspired by Catholic social teaching to begin with and here’s a Catholic organization doing a lot of good work abroad. I was like, wow, I had no idea CRS was this big and doing this many things.”
When he gets back to Africa he expects to be working full time on the Ebola outbreak.
“The first thing we need to do is just get these health systems back up and running. That requires resources. We have to be willing to make the investment.”
On Sept. 24 Pope Francis called for prayers and concrete help for the thousands of people suffering in Africa.
“Faith is important,” said Perez. “To believe that there are people here who are willing to give selflessly for someone they’re never going to meet. For the people there it’s difficult. But they’re resilient people if we can just stand with them through this. It’s not easy but compared to some of the bigger problems we’re dealing with we can take this on. We can stem this outbreak.”
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