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Self-quarantined reporter: U.S. must ‘strike balance between caution and panic’ on Ebola

October 19, 2014 at 6:08 PM EDT
Helene Cooper of The New York Times, who recently returned from West Africa and is now in a self-imposed quarantine, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss her day-to-day life after spending time in Liberia and how Ebola has affected the country.
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HARI SREENIVASAN:  For more about West Africa’s fight against Ebola, we are now joined from Washington via Skype by Helene Cooper of The New York Times.  She recently returned from Liberia.

So, I understand you were out and about when you first got home.  In fact, we saw you on “Meet the Press” last Sunday.  And now you’re on some sort of self-imposed quarantine.  Tell us about that?

HELENE COOPER, The New York Times:  It is sort of a modified quarantine as well.

I came back from Liberia on Saturday, and I went on “Meet the Press.”  I am not symptomatic.  I have been taking my temperature and all of that.  But then I started thinking about it when it was time to go back to the office and go into the Pentagon, which is where I actually work often.

And I realized that a lot of people were going to feel weird around me.  So I worked it out with The Times that I would work from home, I wouldn’t go into the Pentagon and into the press bullpen, where — which is a crowded area.

And what I am trying to do is just for the rest of the — until I reach the 21-day point, is to stay away from crowds.  I am not touching anybody, and I am basically behaving the same way I did while I was in Liberia, which is, don’t touch anybody, no hugging, no kissing, none of that, and don’t allow anybody to touch me.

If I do get sick, by some chance, and people are — to do contact tracing, I would like to be, oh, wow she didn’t touch anybody for 21 days, so you are not having to put other people under observation because of me.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And is this advice that you got from some doctors when you came back, or this what you have got…

HELENE COOPER:  No, this is not advice from — it is much more — I think we are all trying to feel our way around with this and strike a balance between caution and panic.

I am taking my temperature.  I have never been more intimately aware of what my temperature is in my life.  And I tend to stay between 97.6 and 98.4, even though I did once go up to 98.5 and freak out.

I mean, the science says that I am not sick because I didn’t touch anybody when I was in Liberia.  And you don’t get Ebola unless you come into contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic Ebola patient.  But, at the same time, I understand that a lot of people feel uncomfortable at the idea of being near anybody who has been in Liberia.

So it’s — in a lot of ways, this is much more psychological.  But I also think there’s some things that we maybe perhaps don’t understand about the disease.  So I am just trying to be as cautious as possible and to sort of treat everybody I come — everybody I see the same way I would treat my 4-year-old nephew, who I am definitely not touching for 21 days.

So my sort of — the way I am looking at it is, if I am not going to touch Cooper (ph) for 21 days, I’m not going to touch anybody for 21 days.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  OK.

So, paint us a picture of what it was like on the streets of Liberia, a totally different health care infrastructure and the — some of the images that we have seen coming from that country have been so graphic in how people are literally lying on the ground outside of hospitals waiting for care.

HELENE COOPER:  I didn’t see people lying on the ground outside hospitals, because I think that the reporting on that is maybe a couple of weeks old.

What you do see on the street in Liberia right now is people not touching.  You don’t see people holding hands.  You don’t see people hugging and kissing and that sort of thing.  The daily life of the Liberian has — has in many ways almost come to a screeching halt.

The government of Liberia has closed all nonessential services, and schools are not open.  So you have — if you are looking at the ordinary Liberian, who doesn’t have Ebola, they are dealing with, you know, transportation is a lot harder.  They are not going into the office.

And one of the things that really struck me is so many people with school-age children are locking the kids up in the house.  And so you do have a case of — like, for instance, with my sister, who has a 9-year-old daughter, my niece has been locked in the house for two months.

So it is really difficult for — for her and for those sorts of people.  But then you have the other side of the equation.  These are the people who are coming into contact with Ebola.  And there, you see suffering of the magnitude that was very hard for me to sort of get my head around, because the — one of the worst things about this disease is that it makes pariahs out of the people that get it.

And so, if you get Ebola, people around you are not going to want to touch you.  They are not going to — it has become — you immediately become — you are sick, you are vomiting, you have diarrhea.  And at the same time, you are sort of — you are a menace to anybody else around you.

And that’s one of the things that really struck me about it.  And yet, in the middle of all of that, you still have people trying to take care of these people who are sick, at great peril to themselves.  I mean, people know to put on gloves and masks and that sort of thing, but this is a poor country, where everybody doesn’t have access to that.

So it’s really — it was heartbreaking.  It was one of the hardest reporting experiences I have ever had.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Is the U.S. intervention — I mean, we had planned on deploying thousand of Marines to the area.  Is that making a difference?

HELENE COOPER:  Not yet, but it is starting to.

What the — I went in.  When I first arrived, I came in with the U.S. military.  And I spent a lot of time with them.  And they are building — working toward building 17 treatment units.  But it definitely seemed like they were in a race against time.  And they are trying to catch up with the disease that is galloping ahead of them.

So the construction has started while I was there on several of these centers.  These military guys are in there.  And they are doing their best.  And they are going as far as — fast as they can, but there is some frustration, because this sort of thing takes time.  It is not as easy or as fast as a lot of people would like.

I think now we are seeing the point now they have stood up one of the hospitals, and they are working on several other that have started.  And I think you are now seeing the point where — that you are starting to see benefit on the ground.

One thing that it really did do, though, is, I think the arrival of the American military gave a lot of Liberians hope, you know, sort of like hope that maybe that other people are coming in to help them.  They are not on their own.  They was a lot of optimism when the American military guys showed up.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Yes.  At the same time, we have Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf saying on the BBC “Newshour” — she sort of wrote a letter to the world.

She said — quote — “It is the duty of all of us as global citizens to send a message that we will not leave millions of West Africans to fend for themselves against an enemy that they do not know and against whom they have no defense.”

It is a — it’s just a — it is tragic that we have literally got a president now that is just pleading for help around — for the international community to get in there.

HELENE COOPER:  It really is.

And the whole response has been a lot slower than the disease, and that is the biggest problem.  I mean, I kept asking people, what took so long?  Why did it take them until the end of August and September for us to start, for the international community to get — and, you know, there is not — there is not really a real answer to that.

Everybody thought — it seems as if the CDC, the WHO, all of these different entities thought this was going to go away.  In March, when this first entered Liberia, you know, there was a brief moment, and then things seemed to get under control, and then it showed up again in June.

And so it took a long time.  A couple of people even said, well, it was all this.  A lot of people were on vacation.  It didn’t take — you know, people didn’t realize how big of a deal this was going to be.  And that — that is sort of — that is said, but that’s where we are right now.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  But considering you were on the streets in Liberia, where Ebola is far more rampant, compared to the United States, now that you are back, and the reaction to Ebola that you must have seen on cable news and elsewhere, compare the two for us.

HELENE COOPER:  Wow.  That is a really good question.

I have to say, people are like a lot more calm than they are here.  They seem — there is a resignation in Liberia to this — the fact that they are dealing with this disease.  Liberians seem to know a lot more about how it is spread.

And that is, naturally, because they have been dealing with this since March.  So people in Liberia, the average person on the street, you know, is not touching anybody.  But they also seem to know that you are not going to catch Ebola from somebody touching you.  You are going to catch Ebola from a symptomatic.

And that is a really key word, a symptomatic Ebola patient.  And so that — there’s not — you are not seeing the kind of panic on the streets in Liberia that I see not on the streets necessarily here, because I haven’t really been on that streets that much, but that you see when you turn on cable news and you see — you hear about all these different instances of people keeping their children from school and that sort of thing here.

And I think their tolerance for risk is probably a lot higher than we are here in the — than our tolerance for risk here in the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Helene Cooper of The New York Times joining us under house quarantine, so to speak, in Washington, D.C., via her phone, thanks so much for joining us.

HELENE COOPER:  Thank you.

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