Moment that mattered: Sierra Leone is declared free from Ebola
“On the day that Sierra Leone was declared to be Ebola-free, most people were glued to the radio. President Ernest Bai Koroma made a speech and people were crying because they were so happy that the outbreak had officially ended. Many celebrations were organised across the country. In my home city of Bo, the second largest in Sierra Leone, there was a big event at the stadium. Both Muslims and Christians came down and were saying ‘thank you God for saving us’. But there were also a lot of talks about how we shouldn’t let our guard down. We knew we still had to be very careful.
As a team manager for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organisation, I supported the establishment of the command and control centre, which was the engine for the entire response in the district. I was also a burial team manager. Burials initially caused many transmissions of Ebola. Our culture has a lot of rituals around burying the dead: many people come together to mourn and they wash and touch the bodies. With Ebola, this was a big problem.
At first, people wouldn’t allow burial teams to bury dead bodies. They’d become aggressive. A lot of the people who worked in burial teams for different organisations carried a stigma because they were seen as high risk and as interfering with traditional burial practices. Many of them were shunned and some ended up living on the street. Our burial teams were trained to talk to communities and explain that the burials would happen in a dignified manner. Families were also allowed to witness burials from a distance. This gave them the confidence to let the teams do their work, which was a great contributing factor to stopping the transmission of Ebola.
“When Ebola strikes a household, it can take everybody away. So we knew it would take everybody to fight the disease”
After the announcement, everybody has been slowly going back to their normal lives. Ebola struck particularly hard in the farming communities. Travel restrictions, as well as quarantines and fear of infection meant people stayed away from their land for a long time after the start of the outbreak. Now people are tending their land again. Ebola did strike again – two new cases were registered in January. But we have it under control.
People are still cautious. There’s less touching and physical interaction than there used to be, and people aren’t travelling to visit relatives as much. In terms of the long-term effects, there are many Ebola orphans, whose parents died from the disease. We’re working with the government to see how these children can be supported. Some survivors of Ebola have lasting disabilities, so we are working on how we can help them get their lives back together.
My lowest moments during the epidemic were when we had to bury children. As a mother, as a sister, as a woman, that was very difficult. Because of the risk of transmission, a lot of people were afraid of going to hospital. That meant we had a lot of child deaths from other diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea. Those kids could have been saved. Many Sierra Leoneans are still emotional about everything that happened. We saw a lot of people die. On the positive side, people are really making an effort to move on.
Our biggest strength in tackling the disease was that we worked as a team: the government, local and international non-governmental organisations, community leaders and chiefs – everybody worked together. We knew that Ebola hits families indiscriminately, regardless of religion, race, political affiliation or wealth. When Ebola strikes a household, it can take everybody away. So we knew it would take everybody, together, to fight the disease. Right now, three months on, we are maintaining that strength and solidarity.”
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