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Ebola: Sierra Leoneans feel like prisoners

Just last week, My Mom lost one of her closest friends to Ebola. Aunty M as she is fondly called worked at the 34 military hospital at Wilberforce in Freetown, Sierra Leone, first as a nurse and later on retirement as a secretary to the doctors. Reports states that she had contracted the haemorrhagic fever due to her kindness; her undying love for humanity.

A patient was brought in at the hospital and nurses were too afraid to care for her because they were afraid of losing their lives considering the high number of health workers that have died from the virus due to lack of Ebola treatment kits. The nurses refused because they did not feel they were well equipped in the form of training and the necessary Ebola kit to treat Ebola suspected patients. This has further caused many non-Ebola related deaths because there is so much fear working as a health worker in Ebola outbreak countries.

Aunty M offered to help the patient despite the risks involved. She could not sit and watch her fellow human being die because of lack of care. A week after this, she started feeling sick and few days later her temperature ran really high and her specimen was collected for Ebola test. It came back positive and Aunty M eventually died three days later and was buried by the red cross without any of her family and friends having the opportunity to say a proper good bye.

The Sierra Leone government imposed a three-day lockdown on the country in a bid to boost nationwide sensitization that was being condemned as being too little too late. The house to house sensitization involved emphasis on the danger of body contact in the fight against Ebola and the importance of good hygiene.

It is no doubt that prevention strategies and early intervention are very crucial in the fight against the spread of Ebola. Just like the Ebola 21 days incubation period it takes people 21 days to adapt to a new way of life. For Sierra Leoneans, Ebola has come to change their lives for good. Part of the prevention mechanisms include no handshake or hug or any form of friendly body contact. Now best friends will meet and speak with space in-between them, very unlike the Sierra Leonean culture.

The outbreak could be likened to Chinua Achebe’s description of the Whiteman’s arrival in Africa in his historical fiction ‘Things Fall Apart’ and I quote “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

The current Ebola outbreak started with a single case from a single family and everyone thought it could be quelled before it escalates. It all started in Guinea and while countries like Senegal and Mali closed their borders with Guinea to prevent cross-over of the virus, authorities in Sierra Leone and Liberia underestimated it and were complacent.

They allowed it to cross their borders and even as the first Sierra Leonean case was discovered in Kailahun bordering Guinea and Liberia, the Sierra Leone authorities still downplayed the speed to which it could spread. They failed to heed to warnings by the media and some government officials who raised alarm on the issue.

Instead political gimmicks took toll of it as the Mayor of Kailahun who is from an opposition party reign blames on the government for not acting because the geographical location is an opposition stronghold. While this was going on Ebola was spreading its tentacles as fast as a cheetah and before a health emergency was announced hundreds of lives had been lost. Sadly, the only viral expert the country had Dr Humarr Khan also died at the ripe age of 39.

Many believed the virus could be contained before it reached Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. This was the same belief that authorities had when the country’s war started in Bomaru, Kailahun district in 1991. The lackadaisical nature of the country’s authorities has led to nothing but loss of innocent lives.

This attitude of theirs has also lead conspiracy theories to gain momentum on social media. The government is being accused of allowing a biochemistry laboratory to be set up in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone and close to the epicentre of the current Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. It is alleged that this laboratory with Western sponsor is where the Ebola virus was developed and injected on monkeys and thus the rapid spread of the virus among humans most of whom eat monkeys, in that part of the country.

Today, the Ebola virus has spread to all fourteen districts of the country and has killed over 2000 people in the Manor River Union. Sierra Leone has lost four medical doctors including one female, putting additional pressure on an already weak health sector.

No one is feeling safe anymore. People are constantly living in fear. ‘We feel like we are in a prison, we cannot go out, we cannot board a public transport. Now even if a relative dies we are not allowed to touch the body until approved by government. Burial ceremonies, naming ceremonies, weddings and all public gatherings have been banned. Life has become so hard for us,’ said Halimatu a Freetown resident.

Ebola has also caused an indefinite closure of schools and all academic institutions putting additional pressure on parents. Teenage pregnancy, rape and other forms of sexual abuses were at a very high rate before the Ebola outbreak. And there are fears that the closure of schools could only lead to worsen an already precarious situation. The closure of schools could only fracture the more an already broken educational system.

Apparently, many people in Ebola gripped west Africa are blaming the west for acting too late. ‘We expected the United States and the United Kingdom and the international community to have acted on time. But they ignored us until things have gone out of control. It was the same way they left us to suffer during the war. And they are always quick to take their citizens who contracted Ebola out of here and provide proper care for them while we are left to suffer and die’, said Mama Mbalu a Sierra Leonean in Freetown.

Like my mother’s friend, a lot of people have died trying to save Ebola victims. And just as Aunty M’s son was mourning his mother’s death from the killer virus, his wife who cared for Aunty M while she was sick caught the virus and has also died from Ebola. How long are the people going to suffer like this? Who knows whether Aunty M’s son is not also Ebola positive?

Ebola has come to crush families, friendship, ties and even societal norms and as we hope and work together to see it end, it is crucial that the authorities embark on robust sensitization to dispel myths surrounding the virus. At the moment the fight against Ebola seems a tedious task because of myths.

Even as a possible vaccination is being proposed, people are already preparing to refuse it as they believe it is actually the live virus that will be given to them. Others believe the virus is a novel idea to ensure population control by the west.

Authorities both within and without Ebola gripped regions should work to ensure people get a proper and better understanding of the virus, how it works within the human body and adequate measures that could save lives.

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