‘It’s Like a Bullet’: First Liberian to Contract COVID-19 Explains Ordeal, Recovery
Monrovia – Dr. Nathaniel Blama has no recollection about how he may have contracted the deadly COVID-19. This is something that I would not remember because… I said to someone it’s like a bullet – it hits you before you know you’ve been hit by a bullet.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Blama, head of Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, is considered the index case for Liberia as the first to be infected with the virus. He was suspended by President Weah for allegedly refusing to follow protocol, a claim he has repeatedly denied.
The EPA boss had just returned from a conference in Geneva when he began feeling sick.
Retracing his steps, the index patient is still struggling for answers regarding the how. “I traveled from here (Monrovia) on Sunday, the 8th of March, I went to Europe. I got in Brussels on the morning of the 9th, connected a flight from Brussels to Geneva on the 9th. I was there until the 13th and returned to Monrovia on the 13th. I got home feeling normal, went to bed and then I got up in the morning feeling heavy cold in my chest. I wasn’t coughing then so I sent to buy some regular concoction, took like. Like you take ginger, lime and started to treat myself with some antibiotics.”
The mild coughing and cold to Blama seemed normal at the time. Coming from Geneva where it was cold and snowing, he thought it just must have been a normal cold at the time. “Of course, you know there was COVID-19 in Europe at the time, in Switzerland, it’s mountainous so there was still snow on the outskirts of Geneva so I felt that it was the cold from there.”
After taking the treatment, Dr. Blama explained that he started feeling better but his instinct told him something was wrong – and so he placed a call to Dr. Jerry Brown, the hero of the deadly Ebola Virus outbreak of 2014, now an administrator at the country’s leading referral hospital, the John F. Kennedy Medical Center.
“I was chatting with Dr. Brown – Jerry Brown – and I asked him, ‘Can we talk?’ and he said ‘Yes, but I’m not in the country, I’m in Congo Brazzaville’ so, I asked that I could call him on WhatsApp he said yes. And I explained to him that I just came from Switzerland and I’m experiencing this strange cold and I’m taking treatment for it, but I wanted to know if we have testing capabilities in town for the COVID. He said, ‘yes’ we have some testing kits so let me link you with Dr. Kateh which he did.
Dr. Kateh immediately dispatched a team to Dr. Blama’s residence to do his test. “They came, they collected my specimen. They didn’t come until 5pm. The next morning which was on Monday morning Dr. Kateh called me and he said buddy your test came back positive. I said okay so what do we do? And he said we have to take you into treatment – isolation and treatment and I said okay. From there on things happened so fast.”
Long before the results came back, Dr. Blama said a lot was going through his mind as he prepared himself for the best – and for the worst-case scenario. “The thing is the way I do things; I prepare myself for both sides of the coin. It’s either yes or no, it’s either positive or negative. So, when I even called to do the test, I said to myself what if it came out positive – these are the ramifications and if it came out negative and I can move on with my life. In fact, there were friends that were supposed to meet me on Sunday, but I pushed them off because I was waiting for the results. There were three or four different meetings. People were supposed to meet me on the holiday, on Sunday – I was supposed to go to church on Sunday but I kept pushing off because I just wanted to be sure that I’m in the right place at the right time so, I didn’t take the meetings hoping that by Monday when the result came out, then I can go on. If it came positive then I can go into treatment because I’ve read about and everybody saying early treatment can lead to recovery and once you don’t have an underlining health condition, your recovery can be faster and I know I don’t have any underlining health condition so I felt a little positive within myself.”
“I knew that there was going to be confusion, public perception knowing the society we live in, but I chose the latter, I rather the confusion now than hide it and tomorrow it becomes worse. So, I chose the latter to just come forward and do the test. So, whatever result at that point, I was very calm and was prepared for the results to deal with it.”– Dr. Nathaniel Blama
Blama’s positive test result for COVID-19 sent Liberia into a frenzy. “I knew that there was going to be confusion, public perception knowing the society we live in, but I chose the latter, I rather the confusion now than hide it and tomorrow it becomes worse. So, I chose the latter to just come forward and do the test. So, whatever result at that point, I was very calm and was prepared for the results to deal with it.”
In that moment he said, thoughts of the how resurrected in his mind. How did he get it? Who did he touch?
Although the virus had not hit Switzerland as heavy as it had in China and Italy, Dr. Blama said he did all the right things. “If I ask you now, where did you take your breath, you’ll not know where you took that air. So, that’s how this thing is. I was very careful. I had hand sanitizer, I had Clorox wipe small one – I had it in my pocket – before I sit anywhere, I will wipe the place, when I get up from there, I wipe my hands. The Liberian Consul General kept laughing at me. He said, ‘I was too careful with the place…’ “Maybe it’s the seat I sat in on the flight someone else sat there and contaminated the place or maybe on a counter when I went to buy something.”
Compounded by the mystery, Blama recalled: “The meeting we went for had strict health restrictions and rules – we were keeping the three feet distances and taking everybody’s temperature and making sure there was nobody there coughing, there was nobody sick and they had doctors on the scene checking everybody. In fact, one of my colleagues went ahead of me. He was there in Switzerland longer than me. So, it could be either on the flight on my way going – the flight from Monrovia to Brussels and Brussels to Geneva or on my way back. Anywhere it could have happened. I don’t remember coming across anybody who is sick symptomatic, sneezing in my face or coughing when I was close, no, no.”
In the days following his positive tests, Monrovia was embroiled in numerous speculations that Dr. Blama had, on his way from the airport made stops to the home of Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill and the Jamaica Resort of President George Weah, triggering speculations that he had infected a few officials in the government.
Addressing the speculations, Dr. Blama said to the contrary, he did not stop anywhere upon his arrival into the country. “I didn’t stop at anybody’s house. I didn’t get off my car. There was one family who stopped at because someone had given me something to drop off on the Du Port Road and I was there for less than three minutes, I left. It’s that one family. And that family was taken in for quarantine for more than 21 days, they were tested more than two times and everybody was cleared. So, I mean I didn’t stop at McGill’s house. I learned McGill was out of town when I got back in, I think he was in Gbarpolu. You travel for a whole day the first thing you want to do is to come home, take a shower and jump on your bed. Why do I have to go all over the place? That’s not true.”
Dr. Blama, who was suspended by President Weah for allegedly refusing to follow medical protocol at the airport, says the President took the decision in good faith. Nevertheless he says, some of the information at the time were distorted.
“To be honest with you, everything was in my anticipation. This is the first case; everybody was running helter-skelter. People had their own interpretation. I think in the wisdom of the President, to get me out of play and maintain stability, I think it was a wise decision so it’s something I accepted in good faith. I don’t he did it out of bad faith. He did it out of good faith to calm things down because the misinformation was just too much…You talk to certain people and they go and distort the information so I knew that something was going to be even worse than that so, I just positioned my mind, made myself stable and this is where we are.”
At the time, Dr. Blama said, given the situation, everybody was out of play. “I didn’t feel any indifference, I think the President acted wisely to put me out of play. If it was you in that position, it would be a hot seat, it would be a hot decision because if people coming to you and making you feel that one of your senior officials has disrespected a mandate that you gave, you’ll feel disrespected, too. So, I’m not particularly angry. I think the President acted wisely. Over time the truth was revealed, I was exonerated so I don’t feel bad. I always say this to my staff and to my friends, I don’t feel bad when people misrepresent me. What I feel bad about is when someone says something about me and it’s true, I don’t get mad at the person, I get mad at myself. How did I get to this point, why did I do this?”