Liberian rubber farm becomes sanctuary against Ebola

BN-EW441_FIREST_G_20141006152542Mary Carter, who survived Ebola after receiving care at the Firestone clinic, walks home for the first time alongside Lyndon Mabande, the plant’s medical director. Glenna Gordon for The Wall Street Journal

Firestone acted early to keep virus in check within its confines

FIRESTONE, Liberia—As Ebola exploded here this year, a rubber farm embarked on a crash course on how to tame an epidemic that has killed thousands of people and derailed governments across Liberia.

One morning in March, when the first case arrived at the Liberian unit of Japan’s Bridgestone Corp., managers sat around a rubber-tree table and googled “Ebola,” said Ed Garcia, president of the company. Then they built two Ebola isolation clinics, using shipping containers and plastic wrap. They trained their janitors how to bury Ebola corpses. Their agricultural surveyors mapped the virus as it spread house to house and teachers at the company’s schools went door-to-door to explain the disease.

“It was like flying an airplane and reading the manual at the same time,” said Mr. Garcia, a Filipino-American who runs this 185-square-mile stretch of Firestone Natural Rubber Company LLC.

Six months later, Firestone has turned the tide of infections, offering a sanctuary of health in a country where cases are doubling every three weeks.

The virus could flare again at Firestone. But for now, not a single known infection was left among the company’s 8,500 employees and their 71,500 dependents as of last week.

The company’s Ebola clinic, which boasts amenities such as ceiling fans, was empty on a recent visit. The head doctor, Lyndon Mabande, expressed relief that his staff didn’t risk being infected by a mistaken needle prick.

An hour’s drive from here, in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, clinics are packed, and scores are dying daily. The difference isn’t that Firestone applied any breakthrough tactics in fighting a virus first identified four decades ago, health experts and company officials said. It is that a rubber company had the money, manpower, and organization to tackle an epidemic that several sovereign West African governments found bewildering.

BN-EW442_FIREST_G_20141006152601Firestone employs 8,500 people at its plant in Liberia. Glenna Gordon for The Wall Street Journal

More than 3,400 people have died in West Africa, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. Many times that number have died at home, infecting their families without entering a clinic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Every hour, five people in Sierra Leone are infected, said British charity Save The Children last week.

While the viral infection has exposed how weak health care in West Africa is, it has also revealed a widening gulf between the facilities of these governments and the resource companies on which they depend. A 14-year-long war left both this nation and the Firestone rubber farm in ruins. A decade later, it is Firestone that has rebuilt.

The contagion has escalated beyond what West African governments can manage. Troops and medics from the U.S. and U.K.—even tiny Cuba—have arrived to help build and staff clinics. The Ebola epidemic is edging toward the borders of Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Ivory Coast, said health experts, another trio of countries recovering from civil wars.

Ebola is now in every county of Liberia. It is also just across the river from the Firestone farm, as the company’s president illustrated by dragging a laser pointer along a map.

“There are villages here that are getting wiped out,” Mr. Garcia said.

Nearly a century ago, at the dawn of the automobile age, Liberia staked its future on rubber. The men who governed this land, descendants of freed American slaves, took out huge debts to Firestone. Here in Africa, they hoped to erect a modern, industrial republic, modeled off America.

Instead, Liberia fell into insolvency, then, in 1989, a civil war. It ended 14 years later with 250,000 lives lost. A third of the population fled, according to the United Nations, and those who returned found a country plundered. Many bombed-out government buildings were left roofless.

Firestone’s company hospital sat roofless, too, when its managers returned to the property at war’s end. Even the elevators had been looted from their shafts. Trees had been so poorly cared for that the farm, the world’s biggest contiguous rubber plantation, may not return to its 1989 output until 2032, said Mr. Garcia.

And yet the Firestone plantation a decade later is, in some ways, a microcosm of the America in Africa Liberia’s founders had envisioned. In a country where children walk to school over muddy paths, high-school students here board big yellow school buses, winding over country roads. Electricity flows from a private dam. Water towers, telephone poles, speed-limit signs and brick homes—all exceedingly rare in tropical Africa—stare out over mowed hillsides that resemble the landscape outside Nashville, Tenn., where Firestone’s head office is based.

“We made everything from a U.S. model,” said Mr. Garcia, driving his pickup truck past a pink brick courthouse the company built.

Outside this farm, Liberia has hardly rebuilt.

Before Ebola struck, this country had the second-lowest ratio of doctors to people on earth, according to the WHO. Today, there are probably more Liberian doctors in the U.S. than in Liberia, said Lewis Brown, the country’s information minister. The physicians who stay start from $1,000 a month at government hospitals and lack the most basic supplies, such as rubber gloves.

These shortcomings offered a fertile environment for an epidemic. On Sunday, March 23, Guinea confirmed the first case of Ebola in the region, just across the border from Liberia. A week later, on a Sunday night, a call came in for the top doctor at the Firestone hospital: An Ebola patient had escaped from a clinic in northern Liberia to the house of her husband, an employee living on the farm.

“You got trouble on you!” Dr. Mabande recalls a Liberian health minister shouting into the phone.

By Monday afternoon, the company’s managers had designed a basic clinic, and raided the company warehouse to confirm that the suits used to clean up rubber-related chemical spills would work as Ebola-resistant medical garb, too.

By Tuesday, they had admitted their first patient. She died while her husband and children were held under isolation in employee housing.

As Liberian senators argued about whether Ebola was a scam to solicit more foreign aid, Firestone quietly built its own corporate health infrastructure. It converted pickup trucks to ambulances. Firestone’s company police, normally tasked with chasing rubber thieves, were given orders to enforce a “No Visitors” policy.

The heads of payroll, maintenance and special projects created an Ebola war room, where they field calls from nervous workers living in the forest. The in-house radio station broadcasts interviews with survivors, who entertain their fellow employees with stories of their ordeals.

“I was unable to lift a plastic bottle of water,” said Levi Zeopueger, recounting his sickest moments. “Can you imagine?”

Liberians just outside the farm have watched all this in frustration. Marcus Speare ’s funeral home buried 104 people in August, most of them probable or confirmed cases of Ebola, and many of them friends of his. None of them ever secured a bed at Firestone.

“Firestone is only taking Firestone people,” complained Mr. Speare, who is also district superintendent for the local Margibi country. “I don’t feel good about it.”

Firestone’s medical staff said they simply can’t extend themselves beyond the farm without putting themselves at risk. They have turned ambulances away.

Yet as caseloads rise, the company is reconsidering. A family of 16 recently showed up at the company’s hospital, all of them admitted or quarantined, Dr. Mabande recalled.

“We are surrounded by hot spots,” said Mr. Garcia, looking at a map. “And they’re crossing into our farm.”