The first confirmed U.S. case of Ebola is fueling domestic fears of the deadly virus, but the epidemic has been ravaging West Africa for months, killing thousands of people, including researchers fighting the disease.
Their deaths — and the outbreak’s ongoing toll on West African health workers — has inspired one Harvard scientist to create a surprisingly uplifting music video. It's a life-affirming song that aims to honor those on the Ebola front lines and is also the theme song for a public education campaign in Nigeria.
Her name is Pardis Sabeti, and she's an award-winning computational geneticist at Harvard and the Broad Institute who has mapped mutations of the Ebola virus. Sitting in her lab's office on a recent rainy evening, she recalled a particularly bleak Sunday afternoon this past July.
She was gathered in Cambridge with six Nigerian and Senegalese women scientists who were visiting on a training exchange. Sabeti says they were thinking about how grim the situation was getting in Africa. So many of their friends and colleagues were among the scores of health care workers who’d contracted the Ebola virus.
“Two of the nurses had become sick and had died of Ebola," Sabeti explained. "The doctor/physician who we work with very, very closely had gotten Ebola. And my other collaborator in Nigeria had just diagnosed Ebola in Nigeria. And so it was a very heavy day, right? And just nothing was lifting us from the fog we were in.”
Sabeti’s Harvard lab has been partnering with the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone since 2009. And, as it happens, Sabeti has been in a rock band called Thousand Days since 2000. Over the past few visits with her African peers, the Harvard scientist would get everyone together for a weekly singing group, and on that depressing summer day, they all started humming and singing along with one of Sabeti's old melodies. Then, she said, words honoring her fallen peers in West Africa — including Dr. Sheik Humarr Kahn, who led Sierra Leone's Ebola response until he succumbed to the virus himself — poured out of her, making a fully formed song.
“There’s a point where it says, ‘It’s a lifetime that we write, we laugh, we cry, we pray, we are love. We dream, we scream, we strive, the hunger will never die. And I’m in this fight with you always," Sabeti intoned, adding, "And that’s how I started speaking to my friend Dr. Kahn during all of this.”
Another lyric, and perhaps the song's larger intention, hits on Ebola's ability to equalize and threaten us all.
“To the virus, we’re all the same," Sabeti mused, "and we’re all in the same boat. And a virus infecting your neighbor is one that can affect you one day. So it’s a place where actually, even though we have to be cautious in the way we interact with each other, it’s where we actually really need to connect.”
And she hopes that the way we handle this virus is something that leaves a lasting impression on humanity, “Where we say, you know, here’s a place where we all did it together," Sabeti said.
According to Sabeti, the entire song was written in that one July session. And she and the scientists from Africa believe it really did help them heal. So they decided to make a video to spread that feeling. It's on Facebook and they’re all in it — smiling, dancing, singing and raising their hands to the New England sky.
“These are the men and women who lead diagnosis of deadly diseases for their countries," Sabeti explained, "They work on malaria, they work on Lassa fever, and this summer we trained them to work on Ebola. So thankfully for them in Nigeria and Senegal they’ve cleared Ebola — but obviously the threat is close, and it’s weighing on all their minds. But as one of them said, ‘This is the hope,’ and that’s what we really wanted to share.”
They got their wish. Now, music from the video they filmed in a courtyard right outside the Cambridge lab is being used in public service announcements on T.V. and radio in Nigeria for an awareness campaign called "Lens on Ebola." Sabeti says the women scientists who came together to make it happen are now back home continuing their fight against Ebola — and fighting for their lives.