When Liberia was declared Ebola-free on 9 May, 24-year-old Korlubah* thought that the deadly virus, which had killed more than 4,800 people in his country, could no longer reach him.
He was wrong.
In early July, he came down with a high fever. A few days later, he tested positive for Ebola, despite the fact, he says, that he was never in contact with a sick person.
Korlubah spent the next three weeks at the ELWA Ebola Treatment Unit in Monrovia. He was finally released on 20 July and sent home amidst simultaneous feelings of relief and excitement at being cured, and the dread of returning home with the stigma of Ebola upon him.
“It was by the special grace of God and through the efforts of health workers that I survived the Ebola virus,” he told IRIN, on the day of his release. “I just hope my colleagues [at the school where I work] will welcome me with clean hearts when school resumes. They need to know that I no longer have Ebola. I am freed of the disease and they need to embrace me.”
Stigma against Ebola survivors has been rampant in Liberia, as well as the other two most-affected countries, Guinea and Sierra Leone, since the beginning of the outbreak.
The majority of survivors, especially early on, were denied access to work and food, and often even shunned by their own families and communities.
Most local authorities, however, say that the perception of Ebola survivors has since changed – in large part because citizens are now more confident that the government has the ability to fight the virus. Many people also believe that they themselves are more aware of Ebola symptoms and preventative measures, and are prepared to engage in the fight against it.
"When Ebola hit my community in 2014, we all never knew what to do exactly,” said Saray Glaydou, a 42-year-old mother-of-six. “We were confused and so many of us died from it…. We were still in the denial stage and never wanted to accept the fact that Ebola was real.”
But now, Glaydou said, everyone knows that Ebola exists and most people have changed their attitudes and know how to protect themselves. They are less scared than before.
“One thing I have learned is to show love to people who survived Ebola,” she told IRIN. “I am happy to see our youth, who got infected from the disease, back in the community. We will show them love.”
Moses Sampson, 51, agreed, explaining that his perception towards Ebola victims, and especially survivors, has changed since the first outbreak.
“It was wrong to have ever stigmatised and demonised them,” he told IRIN. “There is no need to hate them. We must change our attitudes towards them because they are a part of us.”
He said that as long as people continue to follow government-stipulated safety measures, everyone else will be safe.
Doctor Adolphus Yeaie, a county health official in Margibi County, said that reuniting the latest group of Ebola survivors with their families was a “remarkable moment.”
“This is what we have been praying for – that those we take to the treatment unit can return. This proves what we keep telling people: if you sign up for early treatment there is a possibility for you to survive.”
Nineteen-year-old Othello Miah, another survivor of Liberia’s second outbreak, said he was surprised but happy to see the way his community welcomed him back.
“I was very shocked when I saw the community members continue to show love as they have begun to do,” he said. “I didn’t think that they would welcome us back home, so it brought joy to my heart. It gives me a new outlook and I am very happy today.”
Liberia has been clear of Ebola for less than 42 days - the World Health Organization's minimum requirement for being declared Ebola-free. The Ministry of Health has warned Othello and other Ebola survivors to abstain from unprotected sex, as the transmission of the most recent outbreak of the virus is still not entirely understood.
In other areas of life, however, authorities are urging people to go about their usual routines.
“Business in Liberia can continue as normal,” Yeaie said. “There have been no new confirmed cases in our ETU in Liberia [since mid-July]. We will continue with the border screening activities just until Guinea and Sierra Leone are free of Ebola.”