U.S. Journalist with Ebola Highlights Special Terror Reporters Face Covering Disease Pandemic
By Nate Thayer
October 6, 2014
An American journalist stricken with the Ebola virus in Liberia has highlighted the unique dangers faced by reporters covering the rapidly growing disease pandemic, many of whom say they feel safer covering the wars in Syria where colleagues are routinely publicly beheaded.
A number of American journalists who worked alongside Ebola stricken freelance reporter Mukpo Ashoka in Liberia, who arrived by chartered medical airplane in Nebraska today, are now back in the United States and in self-imposed quarantine, according to interviews with more than a dozen journalists, UN and humanitarian aid officials in West Africa.
“It is apocalyptic. Bodies in the streets, bodies being dumped everywhere…no hospital to go to,” said Staton Winter, the Liberian based chief photographer for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) until recently.
“I wouldn’t call it apocalyptic, but it is hellified,” said Washington Post staff photographer Michel Du cille who returned last week from a 12 days assignment in Liberia covering the Ebola crisis. “The rules are don’t touch anything. Don’t shake anyone’s hands. So if the person falls on the ground, no one can touch them or help them. That touch becomes dangerous. So that person will probably die where they fell and they are laying on the street. We would see day after day someone lying on the ground dead for hours, sometimes for days. That is the reason why everyone calls it apocalyptic.”
While he was diagnosed as infected with Ebola immediately after beginning work for NBC News, he likely contracted the deadly virus while on assignment for VICE News, agree numerous sources in Africa, Europe, and the U.S. who worked with the afflicted American.
But VICE news has made no public comment acknowledging that the stricken journalist was likely in their employ when he contracted the Ebola virus. Ashoka was on contract with VICE, a U.S. based news outlet, from at least September 17th through the 23.
Ashoka came down with fever on October 1. He was under contract with VICE News from at least September 17 through 23rd–or 7 to 14 days before he developed symptoms.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control: “Symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, but the average is 8 to 10 days….Patients with EVD generally have abrupt onset of fever and symptoms typically 8 to12 days after exposure (incubation period for current outbreak has a mean of approximately 9 to 11 days)….The incubation period may be related to the infection route (e.g., 6 days for injection versus 10 days for contact).” putting his probable period of infection during the time he was an employee of VICE, according to health workers and Ashoka’s colleagues.
VICE News declined to provide any comment for this article, despite repeated messages left with several senior news executives and their public relations department since last Friday.
Mukpo Ashoka, who was working for NBC News when he was diagnosed with Ebola last Thursday, lived on and off in Monrovia for three years and left Liberia late Sunday on a NBC paid for chartered private jet arriving at a Nebraska hospital Monday.
He had worked for numerous media outlets since returning to Liberia September 4, most recently NBC News, VICE media, Al Jazeera America and the Washington Post.
VICE recommended the freelancer Ashoka to NBC to work as a “fixer” for the NBC crew which arrived in Monrovia, according to sources in Liberia and the U.S.
Fixers, normally local resident freelance journalists, are routinely hired by major news outlets when they arrive in a new country to cover a breaking news story, often without any local contacts or knowledge and are in need of the critical contacts and access that are often known by resident journalists.
Veteran war and conflict correspondents say that covering the burgeoning Ebola pandemic is uniquely terrifying. And freelance journalists, who have long comprised the overwhelming bulk of reporters working on the front-lines in the world’s danger zones, face particularly daunting problems as they mostly are not covered by adequate health insurance.
Several of the journalists just returned from Liberia say no one has contacted them from the U.S. government, that they have inadequate health insurance, and in some cases those media outlets who commissioned them to go to Liberia and report on the burgeoning pandemic are balking on paying them while they are in self-imposed quarantine, despite some having worked directly with the stricken American freelancer at the time he is likely to have been infected with Ebola.
NBC news took responsibility for Ashoka’s care as “a member of our team” immediately upon his diagnosis on Thursday, October 2–an action that both surprised and was commended by many journalists covering the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. Ashoka had only formally signed on as a “fixer” for the incoming NBC crew 48 hours before he was diagnosed.
“On Tuesday, he started working for us. On Wednesday, he said he wasn’t feeling well. On Thursday he tested positive,” said NBC News medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman from Liberia on Sunday. “My suspicion is that he was infected before we met him and then he became symptomatic once we met him.”
According to more than a dozen journalists who worked with Ashoka in Liberia in recent days, as well as Ebola medical specialists, the consensus is he was likely infected with Ebola while working for VICE news, but exactly when or how he was infected is impossible to determine with certainty.
VICE released an un-bylined story on Ashoka on October 3, two days after VICE management had been informed their recently contracted freelance journalist had been diagnosed with Ebola, but made no mention of the widely held opinion by health workers and journalists that Ashoka likely contracted the virus while employed by VICE.
“Mukpo, who had tirelessly covered the Ebola outbreak from the heart of the epidemic for Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, and NBC News, was working with NBC News Health Correspondent Nancy Snyderman’s team for approximately 72 hours before he realized he felt sick, according to NBC News,” wrote VICE, neglecting to mention that the stricken reporter was employed by VICE in the days before starting work for NBC.
More pointedly, there was no mention of the fact that, according to the virus transmission timetable provided by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the UN World Health Organization, Ashoka likely was infected with Ebola while working for the New York City based media outlet–something widely believed as likely by VICE management, their reporters, and other media colleagues in Monrovia, according to more than a dozen reporters and photographers interviewed who have been in Liberia in recent days.
Further down in the October 3 VICE article, it reads that “Prior to working with NBC News, the 33-year-old had also worked with VICE News producer Danny Gold and cameraman Tim Freccia on our most recent documentary about Liberia, The Fight Against Ebola. Gold and Freccia have shown no symptoms of the virus, and continue to follow all precautionary measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.”
Both VICE staff reporter Danny Gold and freelance cameraman Tim Freccia have been in self-imposed quarantine at their homes in New York since they arrived back from Liberia on September 23rd, according to sources. They both declined to comment citing agreements they have with VICE.
But VICE has made no mention of whether Ashoka may have been employed by them when he contracted the deadly Ebola virus, an omission which has irked a number of his journalist colleagues.
Ashoka’s father, Michel Levy, said Monday at a press conference in Nebraska where his son arrived by medical charter jet that Ashoka wasn’t sure when he was infected. “He was filming inside and outside a clinic and was spraying down a car when he thinks he might have been exposed.”
Two other journalists who were working in Liberia with Ashoka at that time corroborated that story–an event that took place while Ashoka was working on contract with VICE News, they say. “Ashoka sprayed the interior of the car where a child had just died with chlorine. He was freaking out that he had inhaled Ebola from the backwash while he was spraying cars with chlorine,” said the journalist, who is now himself under quarantine in the U.S., adding “He is being taken pretty good care of by NBC. Everybody is being taken care of.”
While VICE has appeared to avoid taking public responsibility for one of their employees who may have contracted Ebola while working for them, several VICE employees and others familiar with the developments insisted VICE has responded responsibly.
“VICE reached out to the CDC as soon as we heard about Ashoka. VICE didn’t have an opportunity to fuck up. By the time Ashoka was diagnosed, NBC was owning it,” one journalist familiar with VICE said in an interview, requesting anonymity because of non disclosure agreements signed with his media outlet.
Despite VICE Media’s reluctance to acknowledge that one of its journalists may have been under contract when he contracted Ebola, most sources say VICE has handled the situation with commendable care for those who reported their story on Ebola.
VICE reporters who have been in Liberia are observing a 21 day quarantine policy self-imposed by VICE, according to sources close to VICE.
“I haven’t been involved, but NBC jumped right on it. They took responsibility, but there is a very small chance he contracted Ebola while working for NBC,” said one VICE reporter, who was not in Liberia and who said VICE only found out “thursday afternoon” October 2, adding “VICE has been in touch with NBC to see how they can help out–to collaborate on Ashoka’s case.”
“He ended up with NBC crew after I left. NBC claimed ownership. VICE has not handled it with great skill and experience, but they have done a pretty good job,” said another American journalist who was in Liberia working alongside Ebola victim Ashoka and the VICE crew.
“That NBC is helping is about all Ashoka needs right now-real help. Because if he does not leave Liberia and get the Zmapp drug, he will more than likely die. That is fact,” added another long time freelance photographer who has been based in Liberia for 4 years.
Ashoka arrived by NBC chartered private jet in Nebraska this morning. Four sources say that the medical evacuation flight cost NBC an estimated $500,000.
“I was told just yesterday to stay out of the office. ‘We would prefer you not come into the office. And you should probably stay at home and rest’, although they didn’t use the word ‘quarantine’. Ashuka’s infection really shook them up,” one photographer for another major U.S. media outlet said Saturday. He arrived back from assignment in Monrovia last week and had also worked alongside the stricken freelancer, Ashuka Mokta.
The Washington Post photographer Michelle Du cille, a three-time Pulitzer prize winner, worked alongside Mukpo Ashoka while in Liberia and has since returned to Washington, D.C. “It was one of the most challenging assignments I have ever had and it was my eighth trip to the continent. Up to the time I left, things were getting worse each day.”
“When I heard Ashoka was infected, it was a jarring experience for me. We would see each other every night. The rules are: don’t touch anything. No hand shakes,” said Du cille. “Ashoka was extra careful. When I ran into him, because we were brand new, he would give us advice. He was coaching us. I was surprised he became infected.”
Du cille related a story of Ashoka admonishing him for entering a hospital ward for Ebola patients. “He said ‘What? You did what?’ But I was suited up. I took all the precautions.”
Ashoka was referring to when photographer Du cille visited Redemption hospital. Du cille entered the Ebola medical clinic wards to take photographs–something that many journalists have refused to do out of fear of infection.
“I went in there and, man, that place was somewhere out of another century. Workers would come there with spray bottles of bleach and spray everything and everyone down. There were two rows of beds in this ward. There was a dead person outside the front door. There was another dead person on the floor between the front door and the ward,” said Du cille. “People were afraid to even cover the dead on the street. People would fall and die and lay there for days.”
The epidemic has overwhelmed the healthcare system in Liberia where there aren’t enough hospital beds, health workers or even soap and water. And it has sent fear through the relatively small circle of journalists who frequently cover and live in West Africa.
“I lived in Liberia. If it was in Burkino Faso, I probably would have sat this one out. But because of the connection, I wanted to cover it,” said freelance photographer Glenna Gordon who just left Liberia October 4th on assignment for the Wall Street Journal. “There are far fewer people covering this than before. In most media stories this big you would have dozens of freelancers coming in, but not this time. I expected to see a lot more. But I was not going to stay one minute not under assignment. I am not in this to make an extra day rate,” adding “I do think that what is going on in Syria has affected the way people cover this Ebola crisis.”
Several journalists in Liberia, most of whom have covered the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya in recent years, agreed that they felt safer covering the Middle East wars than covering the growing Ebola disease pandemic in West Africa. “I was talking to some colleagues and we agreed we would rather go back to war in Syria,” one freelance cameraman said in an interview Friday from New York. He worked alongside Ashoka and left Liberia last week and is currently under self-imposed quarantine. No one from the U.S. government had been in contact with him as of Friday. He called his assignment in Liberia “terrifying.”
“This is the scariest assignment I have been on. I would prefer to cover Syria, honestly. In Liberia, you don’t know where the enemy is, where it is coming from,” said another American freelance correspondent who worked alongside Mukpo in Liberia in late September and also is now under quarantine. “There are no front-lines. The psychological aspect is pretty mind bending.”
” ‘If I don’t sit in this chair will I be safe?’ ‘Did my elbows touch that table?’ Really basic actions are scary. Yesterday we had a mix up and we went to the wrong airport and when we came out our taxi had gone. We had to get in a new taxi. It was very scary,” said the photographer Glenna Gordon who left Monrovia on October 4 on assignment for the Wall Street Journal. ” ‘Who had been in that taxi?’ No journalist or aid workers take taxi’s because you don’t know who has been riding in them. Most Ebola patients arrive at health clinics by taxi.”
The Washington Post team of a staff reporter and photographer were ordered back to Washington on September 23rd–hours after a CDC report was released saying that the Ebola pandemic could infect as many as 1.4 million more people in the next four months.
In the six months since this outbreak was first formally reported in March, 337 health care workers have been infected and 181 have died, WHO said. On September 23, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported its own study concluding that 550,000 to 1.4 million cases of the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone would be expected by the end of January–or within four months.
Transparency International labels Liberia the most corrupt country on earth. “The deal is this. Liberia got Ebola from Guineans fleeing their country. Liberian government is crooked as the day is long. They refused to believe,” said one resident photographer in Monrovia.
Ebola has infected 5,000 people in West Africa, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and more than half those infected have died, with Liberia the epicenter with half the infected cases and deaths.
Liberia’s healthcare system is overwhelmed with people dying in the streets. Liberia has collapsed, according to numerous foreign residents.
“The last time i spoke with him he was not 100% sure where or when he contracted Ebola,” said one photographer working for a major U.S. news outlet who has lived in Liberia for several years and left Monrovia on October 4. She had spoken to Ashoka in his hospital bed by phone the day before. “He felt he was getting very good care. He sounded strong. He has his Iphone with him. He is healthy young guy. He is following all the reporting on him on the internet.”
Peter Boucknert is Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director and responsible for coordinating the organization’s response to major wars and other human rights crises. He said in an interview from Geneva that Ashoka had worked for him as “my administrative assistance” at Human Rights Watch in New York before moving to Liberia. “A lot of media organizations were using Ashoka as a fixer. There is a whole discussion taking place about the treatment of freelancers. It is a difficult world for freelancers–no insurance, taking risks that staff people won’t or don’t.”
In addition, staff employees of the United Nations in Liberia have been told that the UN will not pay for them to be evacuated from the country if they contract Ebola, according to confidential UN documents dated from this week.
One local UN resident employee in Monrovia was advised two months ago by “the deputy chief of medical for the UN in Monrovia” who told him privately “get out now, and don’t come back for a while, or don’t come back at all if possible. This is going to get worse.” The UN staffer has since left Liberia with his wife and family.
WHO published an assessment on September 23 in The New England Journal of Medicine citing a fatality rate in West Africa of 71%, concluding the “current epidemiological outlook is bleak.”
It predicted that deaths from Ebola would climb from hundreds to thousands per week in the coming months, and surpass 20,000 by November 2.
WHO blamed the exponential outbreak on a “combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities after years of armed conflict.”
In the six months since this outbreak was first formally reported in March, 337 health care workers have been infected and 181 have died, WHO said. On the same day, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported its own study concluding that 550,000 to 1.4 million cases of the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone would be expected by the end of January–or within four months.
The epidemic has overwhelmed the healthcare system in Liberia where there aren’t enough hospital beds, health workers or even soap and water.
“I have done a lot of conflict stuff, but covering the Ebola story is inherently different,” said Neil Brandvold, a veteran war photographer who left Liberia on Saturday and is now in Washington, D.C. “I was asked to go by several news outlets to shoot for them, but they wouldn’t offer me full insurance. There was no way I was going there without full insurance. I ended up going for an NGO (non governmental organization). There are a lot less journalists there than I expected.”
Brandvold, who says he is monitoring his temperature twice a day since his return, said that journalists were extra cautious. “We went out with a body retrieval team. I was not getting close to anything or anybody. I was always worried ‘Did I touch anything?’ We were dousing ourselves with chlorine constantly. It is a lot different from getting shot at. It is a completely different kind of stress. It is a lot easier to tell where you are getting shot at from than where the Ebola virus is coming from.”
“I like to give people dignity in my photographs. I have to find a way to give people dignity. But I found it extremely hard to give people dignity in Liberia last week. How do you give dignity to a woman who is laying dead in front of the hospital and no one comes and picks her up? Here is a dead person and here is life going on–something creatively digestible that my editors would publish. It is the rainy season in Liberia. You don’t have that contrast of light and dark that allows you to give a sense of hope–there is a void of the use of light. I found it very hard to give dignity and present the true scenario that is almost apocalyptic in Liberia. It was very hard, a challenge,” said the Washington Post’s Michelle Du cille. It was “one of the most challenging assignments I have ever had.”
Another reporter just returned from Liberia and under quarantine in the U.S. said he had not been contacted by the CDC, despite having directly worked alongside the stricken freelancer Ashoka Mukta.
“God, I hope they don’t contact me. I want them to leave me alone. I am a staffer. They took care of everything I needed. I volunteered to go to Liberia. Of course, I am terrified. I would rather get shot at than go back. I am now on day 11 of quarantine. My worst fear is that I will come down with a cold. I really need to get this over with. Frankly, I need to get laid.”