Ebola is the furthest thing from my mind as I put the dishes in the dishwasher after our evening meal. The girls are in the living room, the eldest embroidering a treble clef onto a pouch for a flute, the youngest playing “library”, with stacks of books arranged on the couch and crayon-drawn library cards littering her desk. Suddenly, the light-hearted chit-chat on the radio is interrupted by a news flash. The voice of health minister, Ana Mato, fills the kitchen. Something in her tone of voice — a brittle, unsteady, panicked quality — compels me to stop what I am doing and cock an ear. Her words chill me. A nurse’s aid who was on the team that cared for repatriated doctor, Manuel García Viejo (who contracted ebola while undertaking charity work in Sierra Leone and who was, if truth be told, flown home to die) has herself contracted the virus.
I cry out to my partner who is at the other end of the house. Something like: “They’ve messed up. It’s gotten out.”
When the authorities decided to airlift home Dr García Viejo they told us everything would be OK — just as they had with fellow St. John of God member, Br Miguel Pajares a month before. The patient would be kept in total isolation from his medical team and the outside world in general. The highest standards of safety would be observed. There would be no slip-ups, no mistakes, no risk whatsoever to the general populace. He would enjoy the best medical care possible, better than he would if he had been left in situ. And if he couldn’t be cured at least he would die at home in his own country, among his own people.
Barring the poor man’s eventual death, everything had gone smoothly back in August with Br Pajares. His transportation from Liberia to Spain in a specially kitted-out airplane and the cavalcade of police outriders, sedans and ambulances from the airport to a Carlos III Hospital that had been cleared for his arrival were followed live on TV by thousands. Opinion had been divided by the move, with many saying that it was too much of a risk to bring a seventy-five-year-old man with ebola who was going to die anyway smack bang right into the middle of a city of over three million people. But nothing had gone wrong. The man died comfortably, with no harm caused to anyone else.
The bringing home of Dr García Viejo, who died on September 26, is now looking like it going to have devastating consequences for at least one nurse’s aid and her family. The question is: will the fallout of bringing another old man (he was 67 years of age) home to die stop with just one life?
My partner and I watch the nine o’clock news with the feeling of dread exponentially growing. The woman presented symptoms of fever on September 30, but was not hospitalized. She had been on holiday since the death of Dr García Viejo and had gone about her normal daily life until she presented herself a second time with a fever of 38.6 degrees C. She is among a team of sixty medics who attended both ebola patients and it is not known how she contracted the disease. She has the dubious distinction of being the first person to contract ebola outside of Africa. Minister Mato assures us that everything is being done to cure the woman, get to the bottom of how she became infected and prevent further incidents.
I do not feel reassured.
I wonder if there will be more incidents and if there are, when is a series of incidents enough to add up to an outbreak. And worse: when does and outbreak become an epidemic? I think of the nurse’s aid’s sixty co-workers. Of her husband. Her friends. The cafes in which she might have had a coffee . . . and then I stop thinking. You could drive yourself mad.
The thing is, though, not only do I live in Madrid and might have passed the woman on the street or in a bread shop and not only do my family and I live in the same neighbourhood as the Carlos III Hospital, but my partner and I also work on the Carlos III campus, about 300 yards from the hospital itself. And while you don’t want to reduce a potential public health disaster down to “me, me, me”, these things tend to niggle away at you.