Kenema, Sierra Leone – The current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa was recently branded the worst on record, having killed over 400 in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. But the effect of the disease goes far beyond the death toll. In Sierra Leone it has spread fear and division, destroyed livelihoods and left whole families ostracised.
Last Friday, Hawa Daboh lost her stepfather to the disease. He had been a working in the laboratory of the local hospital in Kenema. The rest of the family was tested and shown to be Ebola negative. But medical staff refused to give them proof of their negative status. Without it, they have been ostracised by the community.
Life is tough for the children, who have been asked to leave school and are unable to visit their friends. The family says anyone who tries to visit neighbouring compounds is kicked out. The women in the family used to garner some income trading at the market. But now that they carry the stigma of Ebola, nobody will buy from them.
Health workers like Hawa’s stepfather are particularly at risk. Seven workers at the Kenema government hospital have already died from the disease. When Al Jazeera visited on Monday, workers from the Ebola ward were on strike, demanding better financial compensation for the risks they take.
Staff here face discrimination from both sides. They are treated with fear by many, because of their association with the disease. Many others, however, still do not believe Ebola exists, often citing theories that it is part of a plot to raise money or even steal body parts. From these people, they have received open hostility.
The government is trying hard to change perceptions about Ebola. Too many are avoiding treatment, fearing the rumours, and dozens of patients have escaped from hospitals and clinics. The UN is spreading the message that the disease is not a death sentence. Early diagnosis and treatment offer the best chance of survival. Without it, says survivor Adikali Kamara, he would almost certainly be dead.