I interrupt the ‘Self Care for Expat Aid Workers‘ series with an important dispatch to our West African readers (and I know there are many of you, especially in Liberia). For the last few weeks, the Ebola virus has been making headlines and by now, most of us have had at least one discussion with overseas family and friends where the subject has come up. We’ve likely been tracking the news, unsure of what exactly to do about it, but feeling a sense of lingering unease and worry all the same.
I have an MPH and am a tech geek so my company is releasing a free informational app about Ebola in a handful of African languages (that you can download for Android here) and I wanted to share about it here too. Dealing with a regional outbreak of a highly virulent viral hemorrhagic fever is stressful, and we need to be taking extra good care of ourselves during this time.
Here are the basics about the Ebola virus, to set things straight:
*It’s not airborne, which means you can’t get it from walking around and breathing around other people. (Yet. Viruses are highly mutagenic so let’s hope this doesn’t change.)
* You have to come into direct contact with someone’s fluids (saliva, sweat, blood, urine, vomit and feces…sorry!) to get it. Wash your hands regularly and try not to touch your face.
* Health care workers and the families of the infected are most at risk. Most of us, on the other hand, are not at risk.
You’re probably not thanking me for the science lesson, but these things are important to know. I’m not trying to scare you, but I am trying to empower you with knowledge to you can make good decisions and, especially if you work in public health, do good at your job.
What does Ebola actually mean for the office, for home and for day-to-day life in West Africa at the moment?
First of all, it’s important to know and understand your risk level and to take precautions accordingly. Second, it’s important to manage your self-care so that you can keep a handle on your stress.
I’m going to assume that you know all about the first part, so if you don’t, check out our About Ebola app. It will help you around with the basics of physical self-care, especially how to practice good hygiene.
But what about the rest of it? Especially that nagging, lingering feeling like something could go wrong at any moment and we could be stuck in a scene from ‘Outbreak’?
The single most important thing to do is to keep a clear head and not panic.
This is so much easier said than done, so let me walk you through it.
Self-Care During an Ebola Outbreak
1. What’s the Emergency Plan?
If you work at a large organization, your work will likely have already communicated with you about any potential evacuation or other plans. For those of us who are unaffiliated, we need to make our own. What is a good threshold for our comfort level, living where we do?
What I’m saying is, decide if and when you want to leave, pro-actively. We likely have resources that mean we can travel without much forethought. It’s up to you: when do you want to get on a plane?
So many of us expat aid workers act tougher than we need to. Evaluate the risks and decide for yourself. It doesn’t matter if other people think you’re less hardcore because you’d rather not wait it out.
*Please, if you suspect that you have been exposed to Ebola, put yourself in isolation and do not travel. Each of us has a responsibility to the others to keep the outbreak contained.*
2. Get prepared.
Inform yourself, your household and your staff about the virus and how to prevent and cope with it. Prevention is all-important here, as there is no cure. Once your people are educated, encourage them to educate others so that our communities have clear information and so that any rumors can be directly confronted and dispelled.
In any local emergency, you need supplies. If you want to prepare yourself to wait out a local outbreak, you will need drinking water, chlorine bleach, soap and food to last you a few weeks. You’ll also likely want to have medical supplies on hand that include gloves, masks and gowns, as well as lots of plastic garbage bags. I don’t want to be morbid here, but preventing further cases cannot be done unless you use barrier methods so you need to have the kit on hand.
3. Keep yourself up-to-date about the virus, but don’t get obsessed with the news.
Your mind can easily run away with you here, as tracking the news makes you feel like you know everything, which gives you a feeling of control. It’s not real. You want to keep abreast of the facts without succumbing to obsessive monitoring, which will only create needless stress and worry, and likely lead to paralysis or panic, neither of which we want.
I know, right? After three terrifying points, now I’m telling you to take it easy. But I mean it. Once you’ve decided your plan, created a useful information system and stocked up on what you’d need in a real emergency, there’s nothing else to be done. Thinking about it, talking about it, and worrying about it all amount to useless worry and a physical stress response that will wear you — and your immune system — down.
Do things that you enjoy that relax you, like going for a walk, dancing around the house or listening to a guided meditation on YouTube. Physical activity helps reset our stress response and flush out stress hormones, so it’s important to include some daily in creative ways.
Inner relaxation is important, and so is feeling connected and cared for. Make time to Skype with faraway family and friends, and take some time to reconnect with loved ones you haven’t reached out to lately. The pleasure that you’ll get from nurturing these connections will release “good” hormones in your body like dopamine and oxytocin, which aid in the relaxation response.
5. Practice good self-care.
It’s possible to be happy and healthy in some of the world’s most challenging environments and experiences. Prioritizing your own self-care is important if you want the rest of everything to work well, Ebola outbreak or no Ebola outbreak. Hopefully, the virus will never come close to where you are and all of this will be just an exercise for your own personal planning and emergency response. Either way, it is an excellent opportunity to up the ante on your self-care.
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