The little boy was found on a beach, naked, alone and sick. So sick he just sat there and panted. He was surrounded by a group of onlookers, none of whom wanted to take him home. To touch him could mean signing one's own death warrant. No one wanted to risk it.
To live in a poor part of town in the capital of a country, Liberia, that by many measures is also poor, is perhaps difficulty enough to forge a life. To be placed in a "holding" facility because you are sick, that is doubly difficult. To know that the "holding" facility is not really a care facility, it is to get you off the streets because no one knows what to do with you, is an exercise in cruelty.
It was a miracle and a mystery that the little boy, ten years old by local accounts, managed to get out of the facility the night before it was attacked by an agitated mob who forced a number of the victims to flee the facility. The little boy ended up on the beach where he was found last Wednesday, and witnessed by a pair of photographers covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He had no clothes. He was deathly ill. No one wanted to touch him.
Someone brought the little boy some clothes, but he was so weak he could not get the shirt over his head. The photographers gave some local women pairs of latex gloves, and the women helped the boy get the shirt on. But still, no one knew what to do with him. Understandably, they did not want to risk catching Ebola, assuming that was the affliction upon the boy.
Later, he was somehow moved to a nearby alleyway. He lay upon a sheet of cast-off cardboard, crumpled in a heap. So ill he could not move. People apparently walked by, eyeing the boy, but for a long time no one moved to help. Under the circumstances, maybe they felt all had been done that could be done.
The boy lay dying. One of the photographers, David Gilkey, took the boy's picture, later saying that the situation was an "evil Catch-22". A better phrase perhaps cannot be found to describe what they witnessed there in that alley. People want to help but they don't know what to do. They do not want to risk getting sick themselves.
By some turn of events, a neighbor took the boy to a local hospital where they had some facility to care for a person sick with Ebola. Fortune turned slightly. There was word that the boy was improving, news that was of no small import in a region so hard hit by a modern plague. Maybe the universe was not such a hard case after all.
But we know different. On August 21st the other photographer, John Moore, spoke with the boy's aunt. She herself and her children were checking into a clinic because they suspected they had contracted the Ebola virus. She told the photographer that the little boy had died of Ebola, as had his mother before him. An unsurprising outcome given the circumstances, we tell ourselves and shrug.
I told myself the same thing. I could not insulate myself from the effects. I heard the news while driving down the highway in air-conditioned comfort, thousands of miles away from a lonely and sick little boy who died because no one could do enough. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, choking down the lump in my throat. It is not hard to imagine that he perhaps had no one to mourn his passing. I did not curse the universe, because I know better. I know the futility of such endeavors from direct experience of the worst it has to offer.
Later, I saw the picture of him in the alley. He had on the red shirt someone had brought him. He was sick, so sick, and I hope he did not die alone. His name was Saah Exco, and he was a little boy who mattered.