My hero of 2014 sacrificed herself to save countless others

Published by The Independent (29th December, 2014)

News is by nature a grim business, the most terrible and tragic tales dominating headlines and squeezing out the humdrum humanity that is reality for most people on our planet. From Syria to Sierra Leone, from Gaza to Ukraine, the past 12 months have seen more than their share of such stories – although covering these cataclysmic events, I remain heartened by glimpses of decency emerging even in the most disturbing places.

As we reflect on another turbulent year, which saw the first annexation in Europe since the Second World War and hideous savagery reshaping the Middle East, we should step back and salute the heroes beneath those headlines of chaos and carnage. Nowhere could they be seen with greater clarity than in the core of the Ebola epidemic. During my few days in Liberia, I came across African doctors and Western disease control experts who rushed to help alongside scores of locals daily risking their lives to save their nation. 

Yet I will never forget talking to a fearful family down a side street in Monrovia beside a clinic overflowing with Ebola patients. The father had already seen his mother and oldest daughter die of the disease; now his three remaining children were sick and desperately seeking treatment. One small child lay her listless head on his shoulder, while an older daughter was the sickest I have seen anyone still standing as she whispered to me she had been ill for a week. “I am so scared,” she said.

They are possibly all dead now, alongside many others I met in Monrovia, for one of the most awful things about the virus is the cruel way it carves through close-knit families and communities. But thinking of them inspired me to ask for your tolerance in allowing me to choose my hero of the year, a woman who laid down her life to ensure many more people around the world did not suffer like that poor family.

Her name was Ameyo Stella Adadevoh. She was a devoted mother, a dedicated doctor and descendant of Herbert Macaulay, a famous nationalist and one of Nigeria’s founding fathers. Now she deserves to share her great-grandfather’s iconic status for her selfless actions ensured Ebola did not explode in Nigeria. Had it done so, a local disaster that has killed 7,700 people and crippled three countries could have turned into a global nightmare given her nation’s huge population, shambolic public services, conflict-ridden north and connections with the rest of the world.

It was back in July when a 40-year-old man named Patrick Sawyer entered the First Consultant Hospital in Lagos with symptoms that suggested malaria. A Liberian civil servant with US citizenship, he denied being in contact with any Ebola patients despite his sister having just died of the virus, vomiting heavily on the plane that flew him to Lagos and then collapsing on arrival in West Africa’s busiest transport hub. It is thought he possibly wanted to reach a celebrated Pentecostal church.

Ebola was unknown in Nigeria but Adadevoh – the long-serving duty consultant in a private clinic – was rightly suspicious so isolated her patient and alerted local health officials. Sawyer became aggressive and demanded to leave, claiming he had to attend a conference in a coastal town and calling his contacts. So at one stage she had to resist threatening calls from Liberian diplomats, accusing her of kidnapping him. Another time she had to physically restrain her screaming patient as he yanked out his intravenous tube, spraying highly contagious blood around the room.

After five days, Sawyer died – and then Adadevoh was found to have caught the wretched virus. On August 19, she succumbed to the disease, as did three of her colleagues. But their legacy could be seen in the impressive way Nigeria responded, tracking down and monitoring 898 people linked to Sawyer, including a nurse who had travelled 310 miles to another town. One subsequently infected doctor had another 526 contacts. The state governor displayed exemplary leadership; film stars and posts on social media helped explain the disease and its dangers. By mid-October, Nigeria was declared Ebola-free after just seven deaths.

This was a brilliant performance from a much-maligned nation. As one senior United States official said, the last thing anyone in the world ever wants to ever hear are the words “Ebola” and “Lagos” in the same sentence. This conjures up images of apocalyptic urban outbreak in a bustling mega-city of 21 million people, the biggest in Africa and full of the sort of over-crowded slums that could see the virus spread terrifyingly fast.

It would have been easier for Adadevoh to discharge her difficult patient or pass him to a bigger hospital. Instead, a strong woman carried out her duties, her steely determination and ultimate self-sacrifice serving as a salutary reminder of shared humanity and the power of public service. Her brave stance offers a stinging rebuke to the fatal complacency of so many in the international community over Ebola – and to the patronising ignorance of all those Westerners who think they are the real saviours of Africa.

Adadevoh was just one Ebola victim among many, one more person who briefly flared in the headlines before flickering attention turned to news of death and destruction from elsewhere. But the globe owes this courageous woman its gratitude. She deserves to be hailed as the true hero of 2014.

…And the villain of 2015? Easy

So who is the villain of the year? The answer is too easy: it has to be Vladimir Putin for deliberately ripping apart a neighbouring nation after its people rejected his kleptocratic chums and sought the kinds of freedom he spends his time squashing in Russia. Now almost 5,000 people have died in a needless conflict, one million Ukrainians have been displaced and the world waits anxiously to see how he reacts to his crashing economy.

One of those I met while watching Putin steal Crimea with his stealth invasion and sham referendum was a young photographer called Gennady Afanasiev. This nervous young activist admitted being scared as he opposed the annexation of his birthplace. This was not surprising; he and his friends were suffering harassment even before the rigged vote in March as they mounted their mild protests.

With his black clothes and part-shaved head, Gennady reminded me of a student activist – although his language was more moderate. Two months later, he was arrested by Russian security for supposedly plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin in Simferopol, in league with a prominent film director and far-right nationalists. Now, in another sign of Crimea’s declining human rights, Moscow sources say he has been sentenced to seven years in jail.

Such cases, along with the harassment of Tartar Muslims and clampdown on local media, should rebuke all those useful idiots on both right and left who were so blinkered by their own prejudices they ended up endorsing the actions of this diminutive despot.

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