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Liberia Is Stiffing Its Contact Tracers as Ebola Epidemic Continues

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Some 600 angry Ebola workers surrounded Liberia’s Ministry of Health Monday demanding back pay dating from early September. The ministry employees who track down anyone who may have come into contact with an Ebola victim — a critical process called contact tracing — have never received a dime. Of the several thousand ...

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Some 600 angry Ebola workers surrounded Liberia’s Ministry of Health Monday demanding back pay dating from early September. The ministry employees who track down anyone who may have come into contact with an Ebola victim — a critical process called contact tracing — have never received a dime.

Of the several thousand contact tracers who had been told that they would, at last, be paid, 600 converged on the ministry on Monday morning, but no paymaster could be found. A single paymaster appeared — at 3 p.m. — and departed two hours later, having processed salary payments for fewer than 50 people.

The enraged workers, whose labors are essential to stemming the Ebola epidemic, shouted angrily for hours. Holding up cellphone pictures to illustrate the conditions under which they toil, the contact tracers described fording raging rivers in dugout canoes, hiking through knee-high mud, and hunting for hours in blazing sun through slums that have no addresses.

"They are lying to the Liberian people," King James of Zybah town shouted, waving his fist at the Ministry of Health. "They are not doing the prevention measures they claim."

Tamba Korkor said that shortly after he started working as a contact tracer his colleague and he discovered a person with Ebola in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. "We sent for the supervisor to call an ambulance. They took the person, but he died. Then the family sent for relatives in Guinea. They came and attacked us. They said we sold this man for money! Our life is at risk! I have not dared to go home for two months. They attacked my family members."

I waded into the crowd of contact tracers and was overwhelmed by their shouting and their stories. Despite the government’s failure to pay them, everyone had continued to work under often harsh conditions, without protective gear, because they want to stem the epidemic that has claimed the lives of more than 2,700 Liberians. "We have been working very hard against this virus and we’re not getting no pay," Andrew Lewis Jr. explained. "We gave up everything to help our country. Please tell President Obama to tell the people here to give us our money. It’s wrong!"

Each of the workers is owed an average of $240. Some were so short of cash that they could not afford transportation home after the protest.

Inside the government building, doctors and scientists said they support these front-line workers. The paymaster declined to speak, but Health Ministry officials said that the Ministry of Finance, which not only failed to process salaries on Monday, but also owes money to Ebola-fighting doctors and nurses too, handles disbursements. Nobody from the Ministry of Finance could be reached for comment.

Even outside of Monrovia anger over nonpayment is building among the army of contact tracers. In a tiny town straddling the border with Sierra Leone, I found on Tuesday a full-fledged outbreak imperiling neighboring communities for lack of contact tracing.

In the town of Jene-Wonde, Liberia, where at least 25 people have died of Ebola in an epidemic that continues to spread, a dozen epidemiologists from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local Liberian health agencies sought a spot of shade out of the blazing sun to discuss how to stop the Ebola brush fire. One pointed out the need to deploy an army of contact tracers to towns throughout the area. But another said it’s getting hard to get their cooperation because they are so long without pay.

The cluster of disease fighters nodded, one mumbling, "can’t blame them" for being mad.    

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer.

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