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On The Ground In Sierra Leone: Notes From The Ebola Crisis

John A L Terry, a journalist in Freetown, reports on the Ebola crisis on the ground in Sierra Leone.

According to the W.H.O., there have been 2,127 cases of Ebola and 1,145 deaths from the virus in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone since the crisis started in December in Guinea (“patient zero” was identified last week). Sierra Leone has had the biggest upsurge in cases to date, with two of their top doctors succumbing to the illness. We asked Sierra Leonean reporter John A L Terry to give his impressions of the Ebola crisis on the ground in Freetown.


Okayafrica: What’s the general feeling in Freetown right now?

John A L Terry: In the beginning of the epidemic, many Sierra Leoneans denied the existence of the disease, but the death of Dr. Khan - Sierra Leone’s only hemorrhagic fever specialist - actually got everybody thinking that Ebola spares no soul. We are now a nation on edge.

OKA: What obvious changes can you see on the streets since the Ebola outbreak?

J. Terry: Moving around Freetown these days, the signs of our nation’s crisis with Ebola are everywhere. Every public outlet has a dispenser and water bucket filled with chlorine solution outside its door, and everybody is encouraged to wash their hands. In places such as police stations and army barracks, hand washing is mandatory. Many people have their concerns about the chlorine solutions, it can cause skin irritation and destroy people’s clothes, as so many people are yet to fully understand the mixing ratio. But the population now understands the seriousness and need for these precautions. In the markets, disinfectants, chlorine tablets, and latex gloves are now ubiquitously for sale – keeping the virus at bay has become a lucrative business. One can easily notice gloved hands, and sanitizer tubes fastened to belt holes. Yusufu Mansaray, a black market foreign exchange dealer, now works with latex gloved hands all day, he says, “because I deal with a lot of people and I don’t know who has the virus, or who does not.”

OKA: How else has Ebola changed people’s behavior?

J. Terry: The virus has changed our customs – we are used to hand-shaking and warm greetings, but now everybody is keeping body contact as minimal as possible. In the streets you can see that men are long sleeve shirts on to cover their arms as much as possible.

OKA: Are people in Freetown being checked for Ebola symptoms?

J. Terry: One major problem in the fight against Ebola is the free movement of people from one place to the other and the inability to know who may be infected and contagious. Though there are screening centers with infrared thermometers, these tools only detect rising body temperature, which is not evident during the incubation period of the disease. The early-stage ebola symptoms - fever, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle and joint pain - are very common and can indicate other curable and less serious ailments like malaria, a very common illness here. The raw intensity of stigmatization around the virus has made it difficult for people with these less serious illnesses to seek help for their conditions, as their symptoms could easily be mistaken for those of Ebola.

OKA: Are people being allowed to gather freely still?

J. Terry: The president declared a state of medical emergency on Wednesday 30th July 2014, discouraging all gatherings. What was not initially clear is which gatherings were exempted, and family gatherings like weddings, naming ceremonies, religious gatherings and so forth continued as usual. Other gatherings such as university entrance exams and summer school were on hold. Later, all clubs, pubs, sport centres, and small private hospitals were forced to curtail business. Brima Kamara, who has an entertainment spot in eastern Freetown, was worried about his livelihood, saying, “Ebola needs to go away if business is to return to being good again. People are scared and can’t come out to relax.” Brima’s spot used to host about 850 people on a normal night, but now hardly more than 300 wander through.

OKA: We’ve heard about a lot of mis-info on the ground. What are some of these rumors?

J. Terry: There was a certain myth some time ago that a nut called bitter kola cures the deadly virus, and there was a rush for huge quantities of it. The Ministry of Health and Sanitation was swift to rebuff it. A later rumor suggested that washing in salt water would prevent the disease. Obviously it does not. The latest rumor is that there will be a 21-day lockdown of Freetown coming up, meaning that people will not be able to move about freely. Some people are stocking up on food and housewares in preparation.

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