How Can You Reach Out Without Touching?
In the West Point slum of Monrovia, Liberia, at a holding center for those suspected of but not yet confirmed as having Ebola, photojournalist John Moore witnessed a man stagger, fall and hit his head on the floor. The man’s wife was with him, but because of the highly contagious nature of the Ebola virus she could not reach down to embrace him, even touch him, without risking infection herself. She was left helpless, unable to do anything but stand over him. “It was especially hard on the eyes to see,” Moore says.
Similar scenes play out with cruel regularity in West Africa as family members caring for loved ones suffering from Ebola weigh self-preservation against the basic human desire to touch and hold a loved one in mutual comfort and compassion. The Ebola virus is spread through contact with the blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids of those already ill from the disease. That makes the direct, hands-on contact we equate with tender loving care highly risky. In addition, because touching the body of someone who has died of Ebola can also transmit the disease, various traditional Liberian burial customs (which include washing and laying hands on the body) have had to be curtailed, which has led to further emotional anguish.
One of Moore’s most visceral photographs depicts a woman crawling on the ground toward her dead sister as members of a Red Cross burial team, clad in white protective suits, carry her away on a stretcher. The surviving sister is seen, in a wrenching gesture of farewell, trying to throw dirt onto the covered body as it passes by. “She just collapsed on the ground” afterward, Moore says. “It was devastating.”