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Surviving Sierra Leone's Three-Day Ebola Lockdown

Ebola in Sierra Leone, West Africa, June 20, 2014, by Tommy Trenchard, Demotix.

Ebola in Sierra Leone, West Africa, June 20, 2014, by Tommy Trenchard, Demotix.

When the government of Sierra Leone declared its intention to confine six million people to their homes for 72 hours, many criticized the measure as excessive or downright impossible. The international medical charity Medicine Without Borders warned that the measure could help spread the disease further, if it led to new cases being concealed.

The government, however, says the exercise was a success. During the lockdown, no one was allowed to leave their homes from September 19 to 21, to allow health workers and volunteers to go door-to-door educating people about the disease.

For those three days, nearly 30,000 volunteers helped educate families, hand out soap, and identify the infected and deceased. By the end of the lockdown, the government had collected mountains of data to use in the fight against this scourge. Officials estimate that more than a million households were surveyed and 130 new cases discovered. 

Sierra Leone has recorded almost 600 deaths from Ebola, making it one of the worst-hit countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calculates that 3,083 fatalities of 6,553 total cases of infection have occurred in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

Umaru Fofana, a journalist and free-speech advocate in Sierra Leone, posted the following message on Facebook describing the discovery of new Ebola cases:

BREAKING NEWS: The three-day nationwide Ebola lockdown recorded 130 confirmed cases of the disease with 39 test results being awaited. Stephen Gaojia says the first day recorded 22, second day 56 and final day 52 cases.

A couple of days before the confinement started, Sierra Leonean President Enerst Bai Koroma addressed the nation, asking every citizen to do their part to contain the disease, stressing how important it is to know how to avoid contaminating oneself and others.

The president pointed out that the disease that came from a neighboring country, infecting people engaged in activities like attending funerals, visiting hospitals, and caring for the sick.

Commenting on a heart-breaking photograph of a likely Ebola patient praying over her sick family members outside a treatment center, Albert Mackoty wrote:

What makes the Ebola virus so terrifying is not its kill rate, its exponential growth, the gruesome way in which it kills, the ease of transmission, or the threat of mutation, but rather that people who care can do almost nothing but sit on the sidelines and watch.
This is Finda, a suspected Ebola patient praying over her sick family members before being admitted to the Doctors Without Borders Ebola treatment center. As a parent what else can you do? This is heartwrenching.

Illiteracy, which stands at 35.1% in Sierra Leone, and certain cultural norms common in West Africa, such as washing, touching, and kissing the remains of the deceased, have exacerbated the Ebola problem in the region.

Writing on Facebook, Umaru Fofana gave an example of the disease's economic consequences in one town:

An entire town whose economy depends entirely on people who pass through it and stop by to buy fruits, veggies and tuber crops has been quarantined for 21 days. Moyamba Junction has suffered many Ebola-related deaths since a health worker was infected by a patient both of whom died. No vehicles are allowed to stop there nor anyone allowed to leave.

Apart from the fear and stigma associated with Ebola, there are also cases of violence committed against the sick. Isaac Osman Kargbo shared a message from Victor Sawyerr on the subject:

Being A Suspect Is Not A Death Sentence!!!I can’t help but shed tears as I saw suspected Ebola patients being treated with cruelty and violence. As it would happen, I came across three (3) different cases where suspects were maltreated and physically assaulted. Some of the security personnel at the various locations were loudly heard lambasting the suspects that it was their wicked ways that had caught up with them. The scenes were very pathetic and I couldn’t help myself but shed tears.
At this point I want to ask these questions:
i. Are Ebola patients now criminals?
ii. Are they not our families, friends and loved ones anymore?
iii. What crime have they committed?
iv. Do you know how many suspected cases have turned out to be negative?
There’s another account in the East End of Freetown where a health official molested a father whose child was dead and told him that it was Ebola that has killed his child and that he too should be prepared to die because he is also currently carrying the virus. Interestingly, all this happened at a time when the child’s cause of death has not yet been ascertained. These and many other issues linger in my mind as I continue to find the answers to them. I’m not saying that they should be touched and contacted bodily, but what I’m saying is that they should be counselled, as being a suspect is not a death sentence. These are some of the reasons why people refused to come out when they are ill

In an effort to combat discrimination against Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, Health and Sanitation Minister Dr. Abu Bakarr Fofanah declared a war against stigmatization and presented an aid package to five survivors being discharged from Connaught hospital. Each was sent home Le1,500,000 (about $340 USD), courtesy of the government, to assist with basic needs and discourage broader stigmatization.

Without citing the lockdown in Sierra Leone, the WHO is quoted in a French publication L'Express urging the states concerned by Ebola virus to take measures that are “proportionate and based on facts”. However, many observers consider this exercice as a success as it may had enabled health workers to contact three quarters of households and identify a lot of people who might have been infected.

On September 21, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the Health and Sanitation Ministry announced that it had achieved more than 75 percent of its outreach target, visiting roughly 1.5 million households across the country with educational materials about Ebola.

Similar mobilization exercises will continue in Sierra Leone's other hot spots. More recently, President Koroma announced that the Ebola lockdown will continue in the Port Loko and Bombali districts in the north, as well as the Moyamba district in the south, affecting 1.2 million people for a still-unspecified amount of time.

Follow our in-depth coverage: The Struggle to #StopEbola in West Africa

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