Guest speaker Duncan Cohen: living and working with the Ebola crisis

“This is the most people I have ever spoken in front of before”, announced Duncan Cohen, a Senior Training and Development Specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. It was only twenty-two days prior that Duncan was assisting in the Ebola crisis that is currently taking place in Liberia with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

It is two minutes to seven on Monday December 8th in room 3101 in the Student Center at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Dressed in a navy blazer, white button down shirt, and light brown slacks, Cohen sips frequently from a paper cup filled with iced water as he waits for three Marist students to finish connecting his laptop to the projection screen.

As 7 p.m. comes and goes, the Student Center continues to fill with Marist undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff. The room is buzzing in anticipation as everyone waits for Cohen to begin his presentation, “West Africa’s Resilience Map: Living and Working With the Ebola Crisis.”

Cohen has been invited to speak at Marist by Dr. Claire Keith, the associate professor of French and coordinate of French and Global studies at Marist College. She has invited him to speak about his firsthand experience and the work he did in Liberian Ebola Treatment Centers. Cohen is the first guest of many to speak at Marist’s Global Studies Program, Center for Civic Engagement, First Year Seminar and UN Club new “From The Field” lecture series.

Dr. Keith began the two-hour lecture with a dedication to Doctor Humarr Khan, a man, who was working with Doctors Without Borders in Ebola Treatment Wards and directly providing treatment to those who had the disease. Alongside a picture of Dr. Khan, was the quote, “If I refuse to treat them, who would treat me?” a response Dr. Khan gave to his sister when she asked him not to go and work in the Ebola Wards. Sadly, Khan ended up contracting the Ebola virus and died in July of this year in Sierra Leon.

After a brief introduction by Dr. Keith, Cohen took the stage and began his lecture by telling the audience “every job you will ever have will be because of someone you meet at a Hanukah or Christmas party, at least that’s what happened to me.”

Duncan Cohen is originally from Washington, D.C. and got his first experience with world travel when his father got a job in Kenya when Cohen was a child. Cohen said his experience in Kenya planted a seed in him that “gave him the interest” to help people.

Duncan Cohen speaking at Marist College on December 8th. Photo courtesy of Christen Sblendorio.

Duncan Cohen speaking at Marist College on December 8th. Photo courtesy of Christen Sblendorio.

“When my dad got that job in Kenya, my world exploded. Kenya was very profound for me, I’m lucky to have had that experience.”

Cohen spent a year of high school in Venezuela and returned to the states at the age of thirteen. It was in Venezuela that he figured out that he was good in language, chatting and communicating. Due to the opportunity to live in other countries because of his father’s job, Cohen became bilingual, which he has used to his advantage throughout his life. He admitted that when he was a teenager he was motivated to learn German very quickly, because he fell in love with his German Host Sister. “I wanted to impress her,” Cohen smiled, “she was very pretty and I was a teenage boy.”

After earning his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cohen continued on to graduate school at University of Maryland Baltimore County. He graduated with a Masters of Arts Degree in Intercultural Communication and Training and at age twenty-six found he was working at a job that “just wasn’t fulfilling enough.” It was in 2001 that he applied to the Peace Corps and one year after he submitted his application, he was offered an opportunity to go and volunteer in Guinea.

Cohen spoke highly of the three years he spent in the Peace Corps and advised that if you can devote one year of your life to the Peace Corps, go. “When applying to jobs, no mater what the job, employers have a high regard for individuals who have done things such as the Peace Corps because it shows they are willing to throw themselves into another culture. When you come back from your experience people hold you in high esteem. They admire that you have taken the initiative to throw yourself into a new culture and unknown country.”

Cohen explained that individuals who want to do volunteer work for organizations such as the Peace Corps do not to be “Joe Super-Globetrotter types.” People “cut from all clothes” can and do participate. “Going overseas really flexes your intellectual muscles,” explained Cohen, “I would rather have my Peace Corps experience than my grad school experience.”

After his three years in the Peace Corps, Cohen spent a brief amount of time working as Chemonics International as an Associate and at CHF International as a Program Officer. It was in 2006 when he began working with Doctors Without Borders as a Logistician. For three years he led logistical operations for Doctors Without Borders bases and rural health centers. During his three years with Doctors Without Borders he spent some time in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he expanded a program on immunization and oversaw construction projects on places such as health centers, hospitals, toilets, bridges, hangers, waste zones, and airstrips.

“Going to places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo really reinstates and teaches you about patience and flexibility” said Cohen, “as Americans we are conditioned to become impatient. There you really have to live in the present moment.”

Cohen currently works in Washington D.C. for USAID and with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. He is an OFDA Senior Training and Development Specialist and has been with the OFDA training unit since 2012. During his time at OFDA, Cohen has supported multiple training programs. He has designed, developed, and revised instructor-led and on-line training sessions, courses, materials and presentations with subject matter areas including navigation, mapping and disaster assessment; security overseas; first aid and CPR; land mine awareness; and civilian/military collaboration.

In September of this year, Cohen was sent to Liberia for two months to assist in the construction of various Ebola Treatment Centers. Liberia is one of the three countries that are suffering the most from the Ebola epidemic. The other two are Guinea and Sierra Leon.

“Life is going on as normal there, or relatively normal and by no means is it a zombie land over there” said Cohen about life in Liberia. “At the entrances and exits of every building there are buckets filled with chlorine that you must use to cleanse yourself before you enter or leave a place. And yes, you smell like bleach, but you do feel clean and that you are not spreading the virus.” He told the room about what the “Ebola Bump”, a greeting that consists of bumping elbows with one another. “No touching is allowed,” explained Cohen, “no hugs, no hand shakes, nothing.” He admitted that after two months he found himself missing human contact, “I can’t imagine what its like for those who actually live there.”

When asked his opinion of the Ebola media coverage, Cohen stated that the “media has a spiked interest in all subjects, and then it all eventually dies down. But, is the media making Ebola out to be worse than it actually is? Yes and no. Ebola is truly a gruesome death, but statistically its not. The United States Government has a great sense of control over the Ebola crisis and the media sometimes does make it seem scarier than it actually is.”

“In reality we have nothing to worry about, it is more likely that someone will be struck or hit by lightening, than contracting Ebola, especially here in the U.S.” says Cohen, “it will never get out of control here.”

The fear the virus has instilled in people has resulted in a spike of deaths in preventable cases. Cohen explained that there has been an increase of women bleeding out after childbirth because they are afraid to go to their local health clinics in fear of contracting the Ebola virus.

“A lot of good things are happening and being done in these countries,” explained Cohen, “but the work is not yet done. People need to keep going, until a vaccination is available to the citizens of these countries.”

Cohen admits that, most people who go to help are not the only ones who know very little about Ebola. Those who are volunteering to go and help “are just as scared as anyone else.” He recalled when he was first landing in Liberia most of the people he had flown with were admitting aloud, that they also “don’t know what to do. Nobody had dealt or been through a spread (of disease) of this high caliber, everybody was scared.”

But, “the real heroes and the people who are truly the brave are the janitors and doctors who work at these response treatment centers,” declared Cohen, “they are the ones who are really in there and are at the most risk and are risking the most.”

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