The two girls had nursed their mother as she died, cleaning up her vomit and curling up against her feverish body on the family’s only mattress. They braided her hair until a truck came for the corpse.
Now, as Ebola leapt from house to house in this sprawling slum, it seemed inevitable that Princess, 13, and Georgina, 12, would soon come down with the disease themselves. Unless someone intervened, they would be the next links in an endless chain of transmission that was destroying New Kru Town.
It was Bobby Pomney’s job to intervene.
Pomney is a “contact tracer” for the Liberian government. When he arrived on a sweltering morning earlier this month, Mary Nyanford’s body was being driven away. Princess was screaming for her mother. Tears were running down Georgina’s cheeks.
“These girls need to be isolated,” said Pomney, a slim, bald man, sweat beading on his forehead.
There may be only one way to halt the worst Ebola outbreak in history: find the disease’s victims, strictly quarantine them and monitor everyone with whom they interacted.
When Thomas Eric Duncan tested positive for Ebola in Dallas, U.S. authorities dispatched a team to identify everyone with whom he might have made physical contact. In a few days, they created a list of more than 120 people. Another team found 142 people who had contact with Amber Vinson, a nurse who became infected. Those measures appear to have kept Ebola from spreading in the United States.
But doing contact tracing and enforcing quarantines in a place like New Kru Town is a different story. Everything here is shared: mattresses, toilets, food, the burden of caring for the ill. Pomney, 43, was from a slum himself, and he knew the odds he would face as he kept watch over the two little girls.
Or at least, on that Monday morning, he thought he did.
New Kru Town is a maze of sheet-metal shanties built on a small peninsula, about a mile long and a half-mile wide, that juts into the Atlantic. Depending on whom you ask, the population is 20,000 or 50,000. It’s a place with open sewers and swarms of mosquitoes that seems as if it was constructed to facilitate the spread of disease. It is an overwhelmingly difficult place to do contact tracing.
“I know this is my job,” Pomney would later say. “But I don’t think it works here.”