Fears amid new Sierra Leone Ebola strategy

Planned ‘stay-at-home’ campaign seeking to raise awareness about deadly virus leaves many wondering how they will cope.

A man in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown is being screened for Ebola [Nina Devries/Al Jazeera]
A man in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown is being screened for Ebola [Nina Devries/Al Jazeera]

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Every week Bonnet Sesay comes to a local market in Lumley, a western suburban area of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

It is here she can buy her palm oil, onions, green peppers, and other tasty ingredients she uses to cook for her small family.

Sesay works as a housekeeper and makes just over $100 per month. She manages to get by, but lately things have been extra hard because of Ebola.

“I’m worried for my kids, for myself. I’ve stopped taking local transport because I don’t want to come into close contact with people. I walk everywhere now, including this market,” she told Al Jazeera.

The Ebola crisis, which has affected five countries in West Africa, has forced what the government is calling a three-day “stay-at-home campaign” or in the local krio dialect, “ose to ose” (house-to-house). The campaign will run from September 19 – 21.

The main goal is to create awareness and educate people about Ebola, which has killed more than 2,400 people in West Africa, according to the World Health Organisation. The agency says 280 health workers have been infected across the region, and nearly 140 have died.

The virus has affected Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal, where no deaths have been reported so far.

In Sierra Leone alone, 554 people have died from the disease and the number of confirmed cases is at 2,217, according to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

Information sharing

During the stay-at-home campaign, a total of 21,000 people will be going around the country in teams of three, which will include a healthcare worker, an NGO worker, and a local community person.

The campaign was brought on by the WHO, UNICEF and the Sierra Leone government.

Nyka Alexander, a spokeswoman for the WHO in Freetown, said that the point of sitting at home is so that residents are there when people come to share information about Ebola.

The community workers involved in the team of three have been nominated by communities themselves so that they are people who are known and trusted, she said.

“It’s part of the overall work being done to help communities learn about Ebola,” said Alexander.

“And it’s not just a one stop shop, not a one-day thing. The people trained will be a focal point for Ebola and will help set up a neighbourhood watch system so that when people do hear about a potential case of Ebola, there is already someone who knows what to do and who is well informed.”

I don't get paid until the end of the month. I don't know if I'll have enough to get essentials like rice which is now very expensive because of this Ebola.

- Bonnet Sesay, housekeeper

Housekeeper Sesay says it is a good idea but she worries about stocking up properly on food and other supplies she might need from the market.

“I don’t get paid until the end of the month, like a lot of people here, even though it’s only three days,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll have enough to get essentials like rice which is now very expensive because of this Ebola.”

That is one of the challenges for her and many others. Prices are going up for certain products. Sesay says she is paying about an extra $8 now for a bag of rice.

And green pepper, which used to sell for about 20 cents, is now closer to $1. That is because movement has been restricted around the country and vendors cannot get access to Freetown to bring in products like the green pepper. It may not sound like much, but for a country where many people live on less than two dollars a day, it can have an impact.

Vendors say they will be among those hardest hit during the three-day stay-at-home.

Mary Moiwah, who owns a small shop off a main road in Freetown, sells items like pop, eggs and bread. Her shop is normally open seven days a week. Business has been slower due to Ebola, and now with having to stay home for three days, she is worried about losing more money.

“I’m making quite a bit less now and this shut down is going to affect me, I wish the government could offer some kind of small compensation,” she told Al Jazeera.

Affected youth

Local okadas, who are commercial bike riders, are young men usually in their late teens to early 30s. Many grew up during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002. They did not have a chance for a proper education. Bike riding is the only way they can now make their living. 

But since the outbreak the government has reduced their operating hours to between 7am to 7pm, hoping this will help stop further transmission of Ebola. Before the crisis, they could operate at any time. This now means there is more competition for customers because everyone is working at the same time, said Sheku Koroma, one of the okada drivers.

“But there’s less customers too because people are more nervous to ride okadas,” he said. “They worry we are carrying the deadly virus.”

The 32-year-old rider says since Ebola came, he sometimes makes only $10 but most of that has to go back to his boss and he is left with about $2 to take home.

For students, life has come to a complete standstill. Normally schools would be open now, but they are still shut down to help control the outbreak.

For 13-year-old Tina Sesay (no relation to Bonnet), who wants to be a doctor, life is getting boring.

“I’m tired of this, sitting around and staying at home. I’d rather be in school, learning and seeing my friends,” she told Al Jazeera.

She tries to study with the textbooks she has, but it is not the same as being in class.

Abudulai Bayraytay, the government spokesperson for the Office of the President, says the reason the government chose to do the stay-at-home campaign from September 19 to 21, is because most people are at home on the weekend, especially on Sundays, although some go to church. He adds that enough time was given for people to properly prepare.

No compensation 

“We won’t be offering any compensation because it is not necessary,” he said. “If we were doing a 21-day stay-at-home for the country, that would be a different case, but for now it is only three days.”

Last month a similar event occurred but it was just for one day. The hope is that this extension will help educate people more, according to officials.

Essential services will still be open such as the airport and transport to and from it which includes a ferry and a “water taxi”, which is a speed boat that brings people to the mainland from the airport.

Hospitals will be open and ambulances will also be on standby, including five new ones that were lent to the country from the United States, said Bayraytay.

He said the government was doing its best to deal with the situation but the call for international help is still there and that assistance is slowly trickling in.

A new Ebola testing lab was opened recently by a team of South Africans, about 30 minutes outside of Freetown, and a team of British volunteers work at Connaught hospital, the largest and busiest in Freetown. 

Connaught deals with suspected Ebola cases before sending confirmed cases for treatment to the eastern part of the country where Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical charity, is based. A team of 165 Cuban health professionals are also expected to arrive by October.

Still, there is a long and bumpy road ahead for the country. A fourth local doctor named Olivette Buck died over the weekend in Sierra Leone.  

Source : Al Jazeera

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