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WHEN WILL EBOLA GO?
When the outbreak of the Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) started in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia early last year, the Government of Sierra Leone failed to take robust and proactive measures such as closing our borders and strengthening the weak health system for any possible occurrence. Many well-meaning Sierra Leoneans alerted the Government through the media on the possible outbreak of the deadly virus in the country and made several suggestions as to what the Government should do to prevent the outbreak of the deadly virus. The Proprietress and Publisher of Awareness Times, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, for instance, did series of articles admonishing Government on what should be done to keep Sierra Leone safe from the Ebola outbreak, but nobody took her seriously until the first confirmed case of Ebola was recorded in Kissi Teng Chiefdom in Kailahun District in May last year. Even so, some Government officials had the effrontery to deny that there was an outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone High Commissioner to The Gambia, for example, had initially been quoted by his Press Attaché as saying that there was no outbreak of Ebola in the country. The story was a response to the temporary banning of The Gambia Bird flight to Sierra Leone. But at long last, the Government acknowledged that the first confirmed case of Ebola had been recorded in the country.
The outbreak of the EVD was the strangest incident of an outbreak to most Sierra Leoneans except for those who had read about Ebola outbreak in other countries before. Because of its strangeness, many had argued that there was no Ebola in the country but a ploy by the APC Government to reduce the population of Kailahun District ahead of the National Population and Housing Census. That denial syndrome created many problems during the initial attempt by Government to stem the virus from spreading. Ambulances and healthcare workers were strongly resisted in many communities by exuberant youths. Many other ugly incidents that were hurdles to the fight against the Ebola outbreak occurred at the initial stage like the burning of a drug store at the Kailahun Government Hospital by irate youths. But when the deadly virus started ravaging lives and devastating economic activities, it then dawned on the people that indeed Ebola was real, especially when it started killing vulnerable women and men and sometimes wiping out entire families.
But verily, it was the reported death of the country’s virologist Dr. Umar Khan from Ebola that shook the entire country. His sudden death prompted Government’s renewal of the fight against the deadly virus. The President had to declare State of Public Heath Emergency that imposed several restrictions on people’s movements, public gathering, trade, social activities, transportation, you name it. Health regulations and Ebola bye-laws were also put in place to contain the spread of the virus and they seemed to have contributed greatly to reducing the number of new cases in most parts of the country except for the Western Area and the Northern Region where hotspots are being still discovered by the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC).
Despite the misappropriation of the Ebola funds by unscrupulous officials in both the public and private sectors, Government should be highly commended for its relentless effort to contain the epidemic. The international community should also be praised for its response to the Ebola fight though its response was initially slow. But with all those efforts made by Government and its development partners to eliminate the pandemic from the country, are there any signs that the Ebola will go in jiffy?
The Government’s post-Ebola recovery plan has already given the general public the impression that the epidemic would away soon given the drastic decline in the number of new cases though Sierra Leone has not yet registered any zero cases nationwide since the Ebola in May last year. This situation has given much confidence to Government to announce the re-opening of schools this month and also lifted some of the restrictions imposed by the health emergency regulations, though the lifting of restriction on the number of passengers private commercial vehicles should carry has been rescinded due to increase in the number of new cases in the Western Area and Northern Region.
The persistent recording of new cases in the Western Area and the Northern Region coupled with the fluctuating numbers of new cases has not gone down well with the general public. The Chief Executive Officer of NERC in his last press briefing in Freetown attributed the rise in the number of new cases to lawlessness. According to him, people are still engaged in unsafe burials which contravene the laws of the Ebola fight. One could therefore surmise that lawlessness is at its best in both the Western Area and the Northern Region where most people do not have respect for state and traditional authorities enforcing the Ebola laws. And as long as they continue to defy those laws it will take a lengthy time before the Ebola will go away. That is why the Government or NERC should shrug aside all sentiments and take stringent measures against communities still washing dead bodies because of traditional reasons. Stakeholders of communities engaged in unsafe burials should be given lengthy jail terms as deterrent to potential offenders.
Most parts in the Southern and Eastern Regions have gone for months with zero cases. Pujehun District, for instance, is nearing almost hundred days without registering any new cases followed by Kailahun District where the epidemic first struck. Bo and Bonthe Districts have passed forty-two days with zero cases while Kenema and Kono District are also registering zero cases though they have not yet reached the forty-two days which is the World Health Organization standard for a place to be declared Ebola free. The lesson I have learnt from the success of the Ebola fight in those two regions is that the people are more law-abiding than the Western Area and the Northern Region. They have maximum respect for their traditional leaders and that was why they obeyed all the bye-laws that were put in place to contain the epidemic. Their obedience and respect for authority has now paid off. But lawlessness continues to thrive in the Western Area and the Northern Region because of their disrespect for authority and their primordial belief of washing dead bodies. No wonder they have registered the highest total laboratory confirmed Ebola cases in the entire country. Even on Tuesday this week, it was only Port Loko of all districts that registered four new cases. Over the last two months, the district has not gone without registering new cases thereby making it the district to have registered the second highest laboratory confirmed Ebola cases after Western Area Urban. Its laboratory confirmed Ebola cases have almost tripled that of Kailahun District let alone Kenema, Bo, Moyamba, Kono, Pujehun and Bonthe districts.
Politicians and traditional leaders in the Ebola affected regions should wake up from their slumber and beat a hell out of their lawless people in order for Sierra Leone to achieve zero cases before the end of this month. Government officials from affected regions should be more engaged in containing the epidemic than attending conferences on post-Ebola recovery plan which can only be achievable when the Ebola is eliminated from the country. And until the zillions of Leones misappropriated in the Ebola fight is thoroughly investigated and defaulters brought to book, the critical Sierra Leoneans would never be convinced that any funds for the post-Ebola recovery plan would be judiciously expended to better the lives of impoverished Sierra Leoneans whose bodies the Ebola is feasting on.