‘Death Every Day’: Fear and Fortitude in Uganda’s Ebola Epicenter

As Ugandan farmer Bonaventura Senyonga prepares to bury his grandson, age-old traditions are forgotten and fear hangs in the air while a government medical team prepares the body for the funeral — the latest victim of Ebola in the East African nation.
Bidding the dead goodbye is rarely a quiet affair in Uganda, where the bereaved seek solace in the embrace of community members who converge on their homes to mourn the loss together.
Not this time.
Instead, 80-year-old Senyonga is accompanied by just a handful of relatives as he digs a grave on the family’s ancestral land, surrounded by banana trees.
“At first we thought it was a joke or witchcraft but when we started seeing bodies, we realized this is real, and that Ebola can kill,” Senyonga told AFP.
His 30-year-old grandson Ibrahim Kyeyune was a father of two girls and worked as a motorcycle mechanic in central Kassanda district, which together with neighboring Mubende is at the epicenter of Uganda’s Ebola crisis.
Both districts have been under a lockdown since mid-October, with a dawn-to-dusk curfew, a ban on personal travel and public places shuttered.
The reappearance of the virus after three years has sparked fear in Uganda, with cases now reported in the capital, Kampala, as the highly contagious disease makes its way through the country of 47 million people.
In all, 53 people have died, including children, out of more than 135 cases, according to the latest Ugandan health ministry figures.
‘Ebola has shocked us’
In Kassanda’s impoverished Kasazi B village, everyone is afraid, says Yoronemu Nakumanyanga, Kyeyune’s uncle.
“Ebola has shocked us beyond what we imagined. We see and feel death every day,” he told AFP at his nephew’s gravesite.
“I know when the body finally arrives, people in the neighborhood will start running away, thinking Ebola virus spreads through the air,” he said.
Ebola is not airborne — it spreads through bodily fluids, with common symptoms being fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea.
But misinformation remains rife and poses a major challenge.
In some cases, victims’ relatives have exhumed their bodies after medically supervised burials to perform traditional rituals, triggering a spike in infections.

In other instances, patients have sought traditional healers for help instead of going to a health facility — a worrying trend that prompted President Yoweri Museveni last month to order traditional healers to stop treating sick people.
“We have embraced the fight against Ebola and complied with President Museveni’s directive to close our shrines for the time being,” said Wilson Akulirewo Kyeya, a leader of the traditional herbalists in Kassanda.
‘I saw them die’
The authorities are trying to expand rural health facilities, installing isolation and treatment tents inside villages so communities can access medical attention quickly.
But fear of Ebola runs deep.
Brian Bright Ndawula, a 42-year-old trader from Mubende, was the sole survivor among four family members who were diagnosed with the disease, losing his wife, his aunt and his 4-year-old son.
“When we were advised to go to hospital to have an Ebola test, we feared going into isolation … and being detained,” he told AFP.
But when their condition worsened and the doctor treating them at the private clinic also began showing symptoms, he realized they had contracted the dreaded virus.
“I saw them die and knew I was next, but God intervened and saved my life,” he said, consumed by regret over his decision to delay getting tested.
“My wife, child and aunt would be alive, had we approached the Ebola team early enough.”
‘Greatest hour of need’
Today, survivors like Ndawula have emerged as a powerful weapon in Uganda’s fight against Ebola, sharing their experiences as a cautionary tale but also as a reminder that patients can survive if they receive early treatment.
Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng urged recovered patients in Mubende to spread the message that “whoever shows signs of Ebola should not run away from medical workers but instead run towards them, because if you run away with Ebola, it will kill you.”
It is an undertaking many in this community have taken to heart.
Dr. Hadson Kunsa, who contracted the disease while treating Ebola patients, told AFP he was terrified when he received his diagnosis.
“I pleaded to God to give me a second chance and told God I will leave Mubende after recovery,” he said.
But he explained he could not bring himself to do it.
“I will not leave Mubende and betray these people at the greatest hour of need.”

Source: Voice of America

After Hurricanes, Program Aims to Help Alleviate Stress

The 10 women gathered on yoga mats in a New Orleans suburb, the lights dimmed.
“I’d like to invite you to close your eyes,” instructor Stephanie Osborne said in a soothing voice from the front of the room. The only other noises were the hum of the air conditioner and the distant sounds of children playing in a nearby field.
For the next hour the women focused on various mindfulness exercises designed to help them deal with the stress of everyday life.
The six-week mindfulness program in Slidell, Louisiana, is the brainchild of Kentrell Jones, the executive director of East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity, who was concerned about the health of her colleagues and others affected by Hurricane Ida, which ripped through this region east of New Orleans last year.
Participants meet for an hour once a week for six weeks beginning with the inaugural session this fall and plans for future sessions next year.
Prospective participants, who had to be living in the parish during Hurricane Ida, filled out a survey asking them questions such as whether they had struggled with lack of sleep or had problems paying bills or having to relocate since the hurricane. They don’t have to be clients of Habitat for Humanity’s housing programs, although some are.
Jones said the organization’s clients have struggled with being displaced from their homes, trying to complete repairs while dealing with insurance and living through another hurricane season in which the calendar is filled with anniversaries of previous storms and everyone keeps an eye glued to the television for weather alerts.
One family she works with had to move to Mississippi in the aftermath of Ida while their tree-damaged home was repaired. Just as the repairs were completed, the husband died of a heart attack.
“You have people that are stressed,” she emphasized.
The program hits on a growing concern — the long-term stress that extreme weather events such as hurricanes can take on the people who live through them. People who work in hurricane-affected areas often talk about the stress the long rebuilding process can take on people and the anxiety stirred up during hurricane season.
In late August, with anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina and Ida looming, the New Orleans emergency preparedness social media feed reminded residents of something called the “anniversary effect,” which might trigger feelings of depression or PTSD. After Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, two men in their 70s took their own lives after seeing their losses.
In the north shore region of Louisiana, local mental health officials note that hurricanes are often followed by increased suicides in ensuing years. Nick Richard, who heads the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Health, said that following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina suicides climbed by 46% in 2007. Other events such as 2008’s Hurricane Gustav or the 2016 floods have shown similar jumps.
Research also suggests extreme weather events such as hurricanes can have long-term health effects on survivors. A Tulane University study found hospital admissions for heart attacks were three times higher after Katrina than before the storm.
Another study published earlier this year looked at mortality rates for counties that experienced a tropical cyclone over a 30-year period, from 1988 to 2018. The research found there were increases for certain types of deaths, including cardiovascular and respiratory disease in the six months after landfall — suggesting death tolls often tabulated in the initial weeks after a storm might be undercounted.
The study’s lead author, Robbie Parks, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said while major hurricanes such as this year’s Ian get a lot of attention, his research suggested repeated strikes with weaker cyclones also take a toll. He’s concerned that the full extent of events like hurricanes aren’t being captured. It’s an “incredible challenge” just counting the dead after a hurricane, he said.
“What if someone has a heart attack in the week after a hurricane?” he said. “Then you’re getting into subjective territory.”
One of the women taking part in the inaugural meditation course is Louise Mace of Slidell. She had just opened her shop selling home decor goods when Katrina wiped it out in 2005. Then, last year, Hurricane Ida’s winds and a tornado damaged her roof; she’s been battling with her insurance carrier ever since as she lives in a camper.
The stress has taken a toll on Mace’s health with her blood pressure jumping up and down. Her doctor recommended meditation and then she ran into Jones, who recruited her for the course. Mace said it has helped her learn techniques to deal with the stress and to know she’s not alone.
“You think you’re dealing. You think you’re fine. You’re not. Listening to other people made it better,” Mace said.
The program is funded by the Northshore Community Foundation. Susan Bonnett, the foundation’s president and CEO, says in the immediate aftermath of events like hurricanes the foundation would receive funding requests around traditional post-disaster needs — tarps for damaged roofs, for example.
But the foundation also noticed funding requests for mental health services months after the storm. At the same time, there was a dearth of mental health services in the region so the organization started looking for creative ways like Kentrell’s mindfulness proposal to address the problems they knew would build after events like Ida.
The mindfulness classes are designed to build skills that the participants can use to address any stresses in their lives, whether those are weather-related or something else like a conflict with a family member.
Instructor Stephanie Osborne says people don’t always realize the mental strain that extreme weather can cause.
Take the lead-up to Hurricane Ian, for example, when it wasn’t yet clear the storm was going to hit Florida and not Louisiana. Some of the women gathered outside the community room after the class and talked about whether they needed to book a hotel room in Baton Rouge or get gas for the generator. All of that buildup takes a toll, Osborne said.
“There is an anxiety, a stress around that, especially for folks who are struggling financially,” she said. And if people aren’t aware of how much anxiety they’re holding inside, it can affect things like their health or their jobs: “It starts spilling out in other ways.”

Source: Voice of America