With the number of new Ebola cases in decline in Liberia — in the last week of January, only five new infections were reported — the West African country is slowly returning to life as usual, as Getty Images photographer John Moore witnessed on his latest trip there.
This past month, as Moore returned to Liberia, he looked to bring the story full circle. “I tried to turn the focus from death to life,” he tells TIME. “I felt I owed that to the story, the people there — and to myself. The photos we make now live forever on the Internet — and also within ourselves. Those previous visits produced some very dark moments in pictures, and in my own memories. This time, I reached more toward the light.”
There’s no denying that the situation in Liberia was catastrophic last year. “There was so much fear during the height of the epidemic,” says Moore. “The only way to stop the spread of the virus was for people to stop touching each other, especially in times of sickness and death.”
As a result, Liberians had to demolish their own social fabric: raised in a very tactile culture, suddenly they had to be suspicious of any person displaying symptoms, and stop embracing each other altogether.
Harrowing Images of Liberia's Ebola Outbreak
But on his most recent trip, Moore witnessed a marked change in behavior. “Seeing people interact again as physically affectionate human beings was most inspiring to me,” he says. “I photographed a wedding reception, where everyone openly embraced; beaches, where Monrovians relax on Sunday afternoons, enjoying the sun and playing soccer; groups posing together for photos; church services, students registering for schools due to open this month.”
Of course, Liberia is still not in the clear. “There is still the danger that the epidemic could resurge,” says Moore. “So all deaths, both of natural and unnatural causes, are being treated with extreme caution. The Liberian Red Cross burial teams continue to wear personal protective equipment to collect bodies. Only now, instead of sending them for cremation, they take the deceased to the new cemetery and families are permitted to watch the ‘safe’ burials.”
This has helped quash the epidemic in the capital, says Moore, “as many families were reluctant to give up their dead for cremation,” because it doesn’t conform with tradition.
Today, with many more Ebola treatment centers in place than at the height of the outbreak, there is no shortage of care for those infected. “The aid has greatly helped in treating those who come down with Ebola in recent months and in bringing the numbers of new infections down so much,” says Moore. “In addition to the Ebola centers, most Liberian clinics and hospitals that treat people for both routine and emergency health problems have reopened, although a critical shortage of doctors persists nationwide.”
On his last day in Liberia, Moore visited Redemption Hospital, a treatment center in the capital city of Monrovia that became one of the country’s most notorious Ebola holding centers. “This time, mothers were bringing in their infants for routine vaccinations and people were being cared for,” he says. “Also in Redemption, the National Institutes of Health launched its Ebola vaccination trials. Though too late to help the victims of this past outbreak, if the vaccine is successful, it could save thousands of lives next time — and with Ebola, there will be a next time.”
John Moore is a staff photographer with Getty Images.
Phil Bicker, who edited this photo essay, is a senior photo editor at TIME.
Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him onTwitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent