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  • Rtd Paolo Conteh

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) has informed journalists at the usual Wednesday news conference held in Freetown that the number of cases over the past couple of days has risen with the country recording double digit numbers of 16, 15 and 14 for three consecutive days this week and 12 new cases on Tuesday after the country reached the lowest case numbers of 2, 4 and 5 in preceding week. Major (Rtd.) Alfred Paolo Conteh stated that when the lowest case numbers were registered, they warned against complacency and stated clearly that the public must anticipate spikes in cases as Sierra Leoneans strive to get to zero. The CEO asserted that “these numbers are rising because people continue to flout the laws with impunity.”

This culture of lawlessness will militate against the fight to eliminate the deadly epidemic from Sierra Leone if stringent measures are not taken against lawless people who continue to flout the Health Emergency Regulations and bye-laws put in place to stem the spread of the virus. Despite the President and NERC have warned for the umpteenth time against complacency to defeat the deadly pandemic with vigilance and robustness, many have failed to hearken to their warnings because of lawlessness and disrespect for state authorities.

According to Major (Rtd.) Alfred Paolo Conteh, “We have started seeing an increase in unsafe burial activities around the Western Area particularly and in other districts across the country. Funeral houses I am made to understand have also started operations across the country on the excuse that families are issued certificates from medical facilities that allow them to embark on unsafe burials.” Why this should happen when the safe medical and dignified burial policy put in place by Government still stands? I believe people are flouting the laws with apparent impunity because the Government has relaxed in enforcing the laws with robustness. When the number of cases was very alarming, for instance, President Ernest Bai Koroma in his social mobilization castigated traditional leaders, council authorities other stakeholders for handling the Ebola fight with hypocrisy. In the Northern Region, the President gave the stakeholders twenty-one days ultimatum to contain the Ebola outbreak in their respective communities or face suspension from office. That ultimatum seemed to have helped in reducing number of cases in many parts of the region except Port Loko District where the number of new cases became more alarming in the last two months than any other district in the North. The President did not make an ordinary threat; he had the temerity to suspend his own biological uncle who is a Section Chief for flouting the Ebola bye-laws. His decision was a clear message to other stakeholders in the Ebola fight that nobody would break the law and go scot-free, and the public was very impressed with the President’s decision.

But no sooner the country reached the lowest case numbers, most people started treating the Ebola fight with levity while the mischievous ones were arguing that there was no more Ebola. The situation was even exacerbated by the pronouncement of the President lifting some restrictions contained in the State of Public Health Emergency. Most of the restrictions were meant to avoid body contact since the virus is contagious. An the restriction on private commercial vehicles in particular being lifted to allow them carry passengers or commuters normal capacity has given drivers the liberty once again to cram passengers or commuters at whim thereby exposing them to body contacts.

If Government is serious about enforcing the Ebola laws, medical facilities should not be issuing certificates to families on flimsy grounds to allow them embark on unsafe burials. This authority is within the purview of NERC but people are flouting the laws with impunity because the Government seemed to have relaxed on their enforcement. It is only now that the NERC Chief is sending strong warning to all District Medical Officers, District Ebola Response Coordinators, heads of hospitals, health facilities and municipalities to desist from issuing certificates that will permit people to embark on unsafe burials. This stern warning should have come earlier to avoid what is currently happening across the country that is responsible for the rise in cases after the country had reached the lowest case numbers two weeks ago. These authorities the NERC CEO is now sending the strong message to deliberately use their profession and offices to flout the laws in order to make more money in addition to what they have already gained from the Ebola fight because Government is not bothered about monitoring their daily activities in those medical facilities. These medics know the dangers of unsafe burial activities but I believe that quite apart from issuing burial certificates to people in order to make money, some are likely caused by authorities from above.

Unsafe burials have become rampant in the Western Area and beyond because medical facilities are now handing over dead bodies to their families with certificates for burial. And with certificates accompanying dead bodies, you wouldn’t expect the funeral parlours to be out of operations. Nobody would blame them but the medics issuing the burial certificates to deceased families and this could not only undermine the Ebola fight but would also prolong it.

Apart from the issuing of certificates from medical facilities, I am told that lawless people in the Western Area and beyond are engaged in unsafe burials by stealth while others abandon corpses in cemeteries whose causes of death are questionable. About a month ago, for example, a corpse was discovered at the Wellington Community Cemetery at Palmer Street. And barely three days ago, someone alleged to have seen a group of people conveying a corpse to the same cemetery at about 4:00am or thereabout. If true, how could that have happened without the consent of the cemetery workers?

By and large, the culture of lawlessness imbibed in most Sierra Leoneans could hardly stop the practice of unsafe burials across the country either by stealth or issuing of certificates unless the Government starts taking punitive measures against offenders. And I only hope that the strong warning Paolo Conteh has sent out to all authorities involved in the issuing of certificates to families for unsafe burial activities could not be mere threat. The same warning should also be directed to people involved in unsafe burial practices by stealth.