In 2014, a 28-year old British doctor found himself co-running the Ebola isolation unit in Sierra Leone’s main hospital after the doctor in charge had been killed by the virus. Completely overwhelmed and wrapped in stifling protective suits, he and his team took it in turns to provide care to patients while removing dead bodies from the ward. Against all odds he battled to keep the hospital open, as the queue of sick and dying patients grew every day.

Only a few miles down the road the Irish Ambassador and Head of Irish Aid worked relentlessly to rapidly scale up the international response. At a time when entire districts had been quarantined, she travelled around the country, and met with UN agencies, the President and senior ministers so as to be better placed in alerting the world to the catastrophe unfolding in front of her.

In this blow-by-blow account, Walsh and Johnson expose the often shocking shortcomings of the humanitarian response to the outbreak, both locally and internationally, and call our attention to the immense courage of those who put their lives on the line every day to contain the disease. Theirs is the definitive account of the fight against an epidemic that shook the world.

Why we wrote the book

The idea for the book started in 2015 when the Ebola epidemic was starting to wane in Sierra Leone and we were starting to be able to breathe again. We ran into each other by accident on the beautiful Tokeh beach near Freetown where Sinead was doing a yoga retreat. We somehow ended up in a 3-hour discussion on the response, what we had all done wrong and how much of the suffering could have been avoided had the Sierra Leonean government and the international community reacted differently, particularly in those early months. 

Towards the end of the conversation, the idea began to form that we could write some of this down, rather than just venting about it! One of the reasons was to make a contribution to the same mistakes not being repeated in future disease outbreaks.

A second motivation for us to write the book was that, while we had seen and experienced a lot of shocking events, we had also seen extraordinary work which we wanted to highlight including the many heroes that had carried out this work, mostly Sierra Leoneans who had put their lives on the line, some of whom hadn’t survived to tell this story themselves.

As the idea of the book took hold, many of our friends and colleagues – both Sierra Leoneans and internationals alike – encouraged us, insisting to us that this was a story that needed to be told, and that the relative independence of our roles meant that we would be able to tell it more frankly and more directly than many others could.