By Taplima Muana, Programme Support Manager, Sierra Leone
2014 got off to an exciting start for Sierra Leone. There was a boom in the mining industry and even tourism seemed promising. The atmosphere was hopeful, and people were going about their daily business as normal.
Fast forward a few months, and absolutely everything had changed. Daily life in many communities was unrecognisable, with schools closed, whole districts under quarantine, and people afraid to leave their homes. Some airlines started to desert us, companies started closing down, and any hope we had of tourism vanished.
May 2014 – Some truths are impossible to face
In May, the World Health Organization reported the first cases and deaths of Ebola in Sierra Leone – 7 confirmed cases were reported in Kailahun district.
I called my Uncle from the eastern border town of Koindu. ‘“There is no such thing as Ebola,” he said convincingly. “What is it then?” I asked. “A plane carrying witches at night crashed and those on board perished. That’s why they are bleeding as they take their last breaths.”
To him, a witchcraft explanation was the most logical one.
When rebellion started from this same border town of Koindu in 1991, people in Freetown, the capital city, denied that a war existed. Once again, no-one wanted to face a terrible reality – Ebola. Maybe some truths are just impossible to face.
June 2014 – My relative must be treated as a suspect
I called my close relatives in Bo, located in the southern region, to inform them that no-one, not even relatives, should be allowed into the house. My aunt called me the following day and told me that her son had arrived. “He said nothing, he just came back with his luggage and occupied his room,” she told me.
“He should not be allowed into your home in case he has Ebola,” I told her sternly.
My aunt was silent, before saying loudly, “But he is my son”.
I told my aunt she must treat him as a suspect. “Don’t let anyone enter his room and watch him carefully. If he starts to show symptoms of the disease, call 117 immediately. Do you understand?”
She agreed. After hanging up, I was annoyed with myself for my lack of empathy. But you don’t kick out Ebola with weak feet.
Twenty one days later, the incubation period was over. I called my aunt for a final check.
“He is doing fine,” she said. “The only problem here is that the neighbour next door died yesterday of Ebola, and their home is now under quarantine.”
I felt as if the ground was collapsing beneath me. The neighbour’s house is just a stone’s throw away from her own. All the neighbour’s kids come at night to my aunt’s house to watch television.
October 2014 – Tackling Ebola
Even with the reality we were facing and the ambulance sirens blaring in our villages, we still had hope that no family member would contract the disease. More cases were still being confirmed, but me and my family were doing all we could – monitoring our temperatures and keeping our spirits high.
As part of the emergency response, Plan opened its first Community Care Unit in Sierra Leone. How brave the staff are to support communities in this way in the worst of times. I have visited some of the centres and saw first-hand the efforts of health care workers to keep patients alive.
December 2014 – Signs of hope
By the end of December, confirmed Ebola cases had skyrocketed to more than 7,000 in Sierra Leone. But our hopes of beating the diseases had grown even further with increases in safe burial teams, additional Ebola Community Care Units opened and more Plan staff on the ground.
Although cases are still increasing in Sierra Leone, we take hope from areas like Kailahun, where the outbreak first started in the country, which has reported no new cases for several weeks. But the battle is far from over.
2015 – Preparing for post-Ebola?
With schools closed for months, the impact of Ebola has taken its toll on my children. They are kept inside our gated compound and my 11-year-old son keeps complaining that he can’t go out and play with his friends. I understand, but I can’t give him that space while the dreaded disease is still a risk.
Responses to the many problems brought by Ebola vary a lot. But the opinion of one man I met during a community visit stood out for me. “The real way to address Ebola, which is now endemic here and is bound to be recurring sporadically even after the current outbreak, is to prioritise education,” he said. “That way, we can deal with Ebola from its roots and not from its branches”.