When David Darg with Operation Blessing International was on the ground in Liberia for the first time five weeks ago, he asked the country's minister of the interior, also the leader of the Ebola task force, what the country's biggest needs were.
“He said their number one priority was body bags; number two was chlorine," Darg told TheBlaze.
Darg relayed this message back to the Virginia-based nonprofit and returned this month to the country hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak. There he is leading an effort to engage local volunteers and produce mass quantities of liquid chlorine to be used as a disinfectant.
Operation Blessing has local volunteers helping spread awareness and liquid chlorine to communities in order to help stop the spread of Ebola through adequate disinfection procedures. (Photo credit: David Darg/Operation Blessing)
Having experience with manufacturing liquid chlorine in Hati a couple of years ago during a large cholera outbreak, Darg said Operation Blessing was ready to take on the task in Liberia.
Arriving a week ago, Darg said their equipment is already producing sodium hypochlorite, which is different than synthetic chlorine. They're producing up to 440 gallons of undiluted chlorine per day and have plans to scale it up. The disinfectant is being sent to health centers and to hand washing stations around the country.
"I was in a community two days ago with several confirmed Ebola deaths but no access to liquid chlorine," Darg said Friday in a phone interview. "We're continuing to reach communities where Ebola is confirmed but don’t have protection."
And that's where the locals are getting involved.
Working with thousands of church volunteers, Darg said people are going out in their own communities to raise awareness about Ebola and how to stop its spread.
"These people are very familiar with neighbors and local customs," he said. "The message is much more reflected that way. [There has been] so much mistrust and conspiracy around the Ebola outbreak, especially outside of Monrovia."
On his first trip to Liberia, where Operation Blessing already had an established presence in traditional humanitarian work, Darg said skepticism surrounding the outbreak was relatively common.
"Five weeks ago we were very strongly messaging the fact that Ebola is real," he said. "Trying to convince people this was reality. There were rumors that it was government conspiracy, Obama who sent it, you name it."
Since returning, he said many of these rumors have been quashed in the country's capital, but it's still prevalent in rural areas.
"We still have to convince people to be safe, that this is a real killer," Darg said.
In addition to ramping up chlorine production so disinfection efforts can help stop the spread of the disease, Darg said Operation Blessing and its volunteers have also begun bringing food to quarantined families.
"They're forced to stay at home and not cross property line," Darg said, noting that they can't go out and buy food and neighbors stigmatize them, even if it's not done maliciously. "Operation Blessing team members leave food at property line...and back up. Then family members come out to get it."
As for the atmosphere on the ground, Darg said there are "pockets of chaos" related to the outbreak, especially near health centers, but in other villages "it looks like a normal street."
"You could be anywhere in Africa and not know there was an Ebola outbreak," he said, noting that overall commerce is down and most children are not in school.
As for his own safety, Darg said he's "not afraid."
"I'm cautious, extremely cautious like all the workers are. But something that I’ve learned throughout course of last few months is that it is actually harder to catch than the movies make out," he said.
In fact, Darg said that he recently spoke with doctors working at treatment centers who said they're not afraid as long as they take the necessary precautions. Despite some health workers becoming infected with Ebola — the World Health Organization estimates about 400 health workers in West Africa have contracted the disease — the majority have not.
Darg is not sure when exactly he'll be heading back to the U.S., but in the wake of the first U.S. diagnosed Ebola patient, who died in a Dallas hospital last week, he said he expects his traveling home will be "interesting."
"Five weeks ago, I walked straight into country and, personally, I thought that was scary," he said when he didn't receive any special screening after flying through connecting airports from Liberia into New York's JFK International Airport. "The idea that you could come in directly with no check, that felt slightly irresponsible. ...but it’s really tough to check for people when you come in."
Since Darg's first trip to Liberia and back, the U.S. has instituted additional screening at five airports for passengers traveling from West Africa.
While not everyone who wants to help bring an end to the Ebola epidemic can be on the ground like Darg is, he said the average person can help financially.
"That’s the truth. Right now we need resources to be able to ramp up our operation here. We can do more with more funding. Buy more buckets, make more chlorine, get more food to quarantined families," Darg said. "The production of chlorine is going to save thousands of lives here, I’m sure of that ... [and] really contribute to stopping this thing once and for all. We are proud to be part of that intervention and we want people to join us."
Read more about Operation Blessing's efforts on its website.