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Samuel Ibrahim Koroma, District Delivery Manager, Kambia speaks to locals in Kunthai town about the Covid-19 vaccine. Gavin Douglas/Concern Worldwide

'There's increased food insecurity each month': The ongoing reality of Covid-19 in Sierra Leone

Communities in Sierra Leone are still facing a myriad of challenges.

“WHEN YOU HAVE a lockdown in Europe, you’re able to stock up on food and supplies, and you have running, drinkable water in your house. In Sierra Leone, a lockdown means people cannot access food and water.”

Given the huge impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on developed countries, it can be hard to even consider the challenges that the pandemic brought to some of the most vulnerable countries and communities around the world. 

One of these countries is Sierra Leone, where Sarah Cundy – Concern’s National Health Coordinator there – has lived for eight years. 

I’ve been here through various health emergencies, including Ebola. And it really is a country of such energetic, committed people. There’s such a feeling of community spirit.

‘Instant impact’

However, when coronavirus hit, communities in Sierra Leone (where the population is more than seven million) were faced with a whole other set of challenges beyond what we experienced in Ireland. To tackle these challenges, the Sierra Leone government led the health response strategy, which was then supported by Concern. 

“In Sierra Leone, we didn’t have the number of cases or the number of people admitted to hospital that we saw in Europe, but what we did see was a very instant impact of the non-health issues,” says Sarah. “Things like the borders being closed straight away, that obviously meant that continuing imports and exports was very difficult.” 

RS63281 The health team at Bauya Health Centre. Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide / Concern Worldwide

While online classes were commonplace in many countries in 2020, the education system in countries like Sierra Leone wasn’t equipped for such a change.

“In the UK and Ireland, there’s the infrastructure and the internet to do online learning. That’s not the case for most families in Sierra Leone.”

To enable pupils to continue learning safely while schools were closed, distance learning through radio and small group learning circles were introduced and implemented by the government and various partners: “This greatly reduced the negative impact of Covid on the education sector.”

Other issues brought by Covid are more hard-hitting and harder to recover from as you move out of urban centres and into more rural areas, says Sarah. 

“These are communities who cannot afford the transport costs to get into urban areas. So when we take the vaccines to them, it means they can get information delivered in a way that is digestible for them in their local language and there’s an opportunity to ask questions,” she says. “We haven’t seen the huge backlash against vaccinations here.  There hasn’t been that huge mistrust and refusal of vaccines, but there was a lack of information.”

Uptake in Covid cases

Like in many countries across the globe, Sierra Leone is experiencing another uptake in the number of cases of Covid – but the ability to monitor these cases is “an awful lot lower” than other countries, says Sarah.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in other communicable diseases. At the moment, the continent of Africa is kind of set with bated breath looking at the number of wild polio cases in East Africa.

“What we’re also seeing now is increasing food insecurity month on month,” she says – a challenge that’s worsened as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, which has been a driver for a 110% increase in fuel prices in Sierra Leone, and impacted other key imports.

All of these are a result of resources being diverted away from routine and essential healthcare. So our attention is diverted almost to just emergency response activities.  We’re seeing a drop in immunisations for routine childhood illnesses. These things will continue to have after effects long into the future.

RS63332 Samuel Ibrahim Koroma, District Delivery Manager, Kambia speaks to local Okada Riders. Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide / Concern Worldwide

Vaccines for all

To continue getting vaccines to people in hard-to-reach areas and to vulnerable people, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) is funding a €2.3m vaccination programme in Sierra Leone and Liberia through Concern and the International Rescue Committee. This project is being implemented under the leadership of the Ministry of Health & Sanitation in Sierra Leone and its National Vaccination Deployment Plan. 

“The funding means we’ve been able to vaccinate people in every single district of the country,” says Sarah. “Some of those communities are almost entirely inaccessible. 

“We focused on all of the areas that were going to be left behind, all of the people who were going to be left behind – whether those be particularly vulnerable groups, such as the elderly who can’t get to health facilities, people with physical disabilities, prison populations, Okada riders, or transient groups such as the mining communities who don’t access traditional health care services. 

We’ve been able to reach huge numbers of people.

As it stands, 33.8% of the population in Sierra Leone is currently vaccinated – but work still needs to be done to tackle the virus in vulnerable countries and communities, says Sarah. 

“The last two years have been difficult for every person on the planet,” says Sarah. “There have been huge changes to people’s lives and lifestyles, there’s been huge loss in every country of the world.

“People, I think, are still grieving not only for loved ones who might have died, but grieving for the life that they used to have – and there is nothing wrong with that and there is nothing to condemn about that.

“But I think, at the same time, it’s an opportunity for us to look around and think how do we value human life globally? How have we, as a race of people got to this situation, and how can we stop this happening again?” 

Concern’s vaccination programmes in Sierra Leone and Liberia are funded by the European Union. Learn more about Concern’s work in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone and Liberia here

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