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Ebola On The Ground: Okayafrica + Ebola Deeply Investigate Sierra Leone’s Epicenter

This is Part 1 of Okayafrica and Ebola Deeply’s multi-part ‘Ebola On The Ground’ video series. For more episodes, see Part 2: The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Part 3: The Ebola Surveillance TeamPart 4: The Decontaminator, and Part 5: Tokeh Village.

While Western media coverage of the Ebola crisis faded sometime in November, daily case counts in Sierra Leone continued to grow exponentially through the top of the new year. Okayafrica, teaming up with single-subject news site Ebola Deeply, arrived in Freetown on New Year’s Eve in the midst of a countrywide State of Emergency. We wanted to explore what it must be like to live through this singular crisis–to learn what goes into bringing the outbreak under control–and to give voice to the people of Sierra Leone’s experience of the crisis, a factor far too often bracketed out of the international media equation.

It’s been well reported that the woefully inadequate response by the international community along with the neglected health sectors of the affected countries allowed the crisis to spin out of control. To date, according to the (admittedly underestimated) numbers from the World Health Organization, around 22,000 people have contracted the disease worldwide and over 9,000 have died from it. At times in November and December, over 100 new cases were being reported per day in Sierra Leone. By the time the Okayafrica team arrived in-country, systems and infrastructure to combat the outbreak had been put into place. We were able to witness first-hand Operation Western Area Surge – an impressively-organized attempt to identify and treat all the cases of Ebola within the Western Area of the country (predominantly Freetown and its surrounds), where the virus had spread the quickest.

This resulting video series, ‘Ebola On The Ground,’ documents some of the nuts and bolts of the response as well as the varied effects Ebola has had on individuals and communities, while also looking at some of the economic aftermath that will regrettably have long-term consequences. We spoke with many survivors and their caretakers; families who were still under quarantine; and those that had lost loved ones. We interviewed Sierra Leoneans who had chosen to work in the Ebola Treatment Centers either as health workers or support staff, observed their rigorous training, and documented their pride, fear, courage–and everything in between.

Some of the most interesting moments were looking at the mechanisms and processes of bringing the crisis under control, from the emergency call-in center to the burial team tasked with new “safe and dignified” funeral rituals, from the District Surveillance Officers‘ community investigations into suspected cases to the Contact Tracers who must track down anyone with potential exposure. We were invited into the Situation Room and the semi-frenzied Command Centre; indeed, fighting Ebola certainly felt like a war theatre, played out against an invisible and alien enemy that turns our most human instincts – caring for one another, paying respect to our lost loved ones – into weapons that endanger our very existence

Since we returned back Stateside, the case numbers in Sierra Leone have been looking much, much better. On some days only 6 cases are being discovered across the country; the strict emergency curfews have been partially lifted and schools are set to re-open in March. This is all tremendous news, but as a staff member from Médecins Sans Frontières said to us, all it takes is one unsafe funeral to re-start the fire (indeed, in neighboring Guinea, new flare-ups have been reported). One emergency worker, speaking about her hardworking, traumatized staff, summed up what we can safely assume to be the entire country’s hopes: we’re all just working to get to 42 days– the amount of time needed to pass without a single case in order to declare the country officially Ebola-free.

Videography/editing by Lance Steagall (Collabo!)
Music by Sorie Kondi

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