Special Correspondent for Getty Images John Moore was one of the first photographers to cover the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. “I learned a skill set that I never expected to use in my hometown,” he says, as he reflects on the process of covering the coronavirus outbreak in New York
In June 2014, John Moore spent four weeks at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, West Africa. It was one of the “largest, most severe, and most complex Ebola epidemics” in history, according to the World Health Organization, and Moore was one of the first photojournalists to cover it. His harrowing images were an important call to arms for international aid, and led the way for other news organisations to expand on the coverage in West Africa.
It was a helpless and horrible situation, but Moore felt it was important to document, and through it, he learned how to best protect himself and others on the frontline of an outbreak — “A skill set that I never expected to use in my hometown, but here we are,” he says.
Over the past week, the state of New York has rapidly become the epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. At the time of writing, there have been over 200,000 confirmed cases and 14,000 deaths, 12,000 of which have been recorded in New York City. Moore, who is a special correspondent for Getty Images, has been covering the outbreak in the suburbs of the city, in his hometown of Stamford, Connecticut, and Yonkers, New York. “There is a saying that when New York coughs, the suburbs get a cold,” he explains. “There are many brave journalists doing important work in New York City, so I’ve tried to concentrate on peripheral areas that are also highly affected, but under-covered in the media.”
“It’s our job to find ways to tell stories, even with the restrictions in place, and to do it in a way that respects humans as individuals”
Moore speaks over a video call from his home in Stamford, where he has spent the previous six nights with the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) as they respond to coronavirus cases in the area. “I’m doing just fine, I just need to catch up on sleep a little,” says Moore, who is remarkably sharp for someone who has averaged three hours per night for the last week. “I’m going to need a lot of coffee today,” he laughs.
There are many differences between the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks — the main being that Ebola is less contagious, but more deadly. Though the necessary precautions have been slightly different, in both cases, Moore has been required to wear varying levels of PPE depending on the severity of the situation — whether he is entering into a situation where there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, for example — and to be incredibly cautious about what he can and cannot touch. Many of the skills he learned during the Ebola outbreak have been transferrable, such as learning to remove PPE in a specific sequence to minimise the chance of infection.
Despite a higher death toll, the visual coverage surrounding COVID-19 has been less explicit, in comparison to the often-disturbing images that surfaced from the Ebola outbreak. This is partly due to the necessity for international aid and attention for the Ebola crisis, but discussing the differences between documenting an epidemic at home and away, Moore highlights another primary issue, which is access. “Access to healthcare professionals in Liberia was easier than here in the US,” says Moore. “In Liberia, I was able to work quite freely. People were open to showing what was happening to them, both in the streets and sometimes in their homes. In the United States, the society is sometimes more private.”
According to Moore, gaining access to hospitals in the US is difficult, for ethical and legal reasons. “Showing what’s really happening inside the hospitals, and how overwhelmed they are, has proven difficult,” says Moore, “so I looked for other avenues”. Through “casting a wide net” across contacts he made covering healthcare and immigration stories in the US, Moore was able to access stories including those of paramedics who are working 12-hour shifts as first responders on the frontline, and an undocumented immigrant family of nine who were quarantined for 14 days after one adult became ill with a fever.
“Just because journalists have limited access to places like hospitals, we should not accept that people don’t want to tell their story,” says Moore. “It’s our job to find ways to tell stories, even with the restrictions in place, and to do it in a way that respects humans as individuals.”
While the social and scientific circumstances of the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks are different, when documenting them, the same principles of following cues from his subjects, and having a sensitivity to local norms and customs, have applied. “In the case of COVID-19, we all know that it’s happening all around us, but oftentimes, the story is told in clinical and statistical ways, and it’s the job of journalists to make that story personal, and relatable, on a human level.”