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Opinion: 'The outbreak has brought an unmatched level of fear and panic'

The Ebola response appears to finally be working. But Sierra Leone has never faced an enemy like this before – the crisis has been devastating.

Seán Farrell

THE PEOPLE OF Sierra Leone have never met an enemy quite like Ebola. Despite being through a brutal civil war, economic decay and grinding poverty, Ebola has brought a level of fear and panic that has not been matched in the history of this small west African country.

Since March of last year, the virus has spread its poisonous wings throughout Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, infecting 20,000 people and killing over 8,000. In Sierra Leone alone 10,000 people have been infected and the response to containing it has reached every village and every street throughout the country.

The effort has been enormous. The military has been deployed to main checkpoints throughout the country, while treatment centres and temperature checks are supporting those who have caught the disease and attempting to contain its spread.

In the months before Christmas the death toll and the number of cases being reported were both growing. With over 100 new cases being reported each day, the health sector was on the brink of collapse. Over 500 doctors, nurses and health care workers contracted the disease.

The effort to turn this around was heroic. Finally, the numbers have started to decrease.

For the first time people are optimistic

The number of cases being reported are now one third of what was experienced before Christmas. The responses of people to preventing and controlling the spread of Ebola are better and more structured than a few months ago. For the first time people are optimistic that the Ebola response is working. A recent survey showed that 85% of the population are now positive about halting the disease.

Ebola is a virus that we are now understanding a lot more. It is not new to us – smaller outbreaks have occurred in the past decades in Uganda and DR Congo – but it is new on this scale. The death and destruction that it has brought to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is unprecedented.

While the battle against Ebola appears to be winning, scientists studying the virus have warned that it may be mutating and may be becoming more contagious. While the numbers are heading in the right direction, there is certainly no room for complacency.

Even if new contractions were brought to zero tomorrow, enormous challenges remain. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, this week spoke of the devastating economic impacts for the region. One third of people are no longer able to make a living, while a recent survey of farmers shows that 93% of farmers have suffered a loss of income due to Ebola. For a rural-based economy like Sierra Leone this is felt in every home in the country.

Uncertain months ahead

Last week I was in a village in northern Sierra Leone that had been devastated by the virus. Those who have survived the outbreak now face very uncertain months ahead due to food shortages.

I met a group of women who share a plot of land on which to farm. They have been unable to plant due to travel restrictions that have closed roads and curtailed movement. Even the raw produce they harvest cannot be sold because markets are closed due to the ban on public gatherings. How are they going to provide for their families in the months ahead?

In another village I meet a lady called Yando Turay. There are 25 farmers in her group, many of whom are widows. They had seed to plant their full plot of 16 acres but have managed to plant just nine acres. The rest lies fallow and even the crops they do harvest may never see the local market.

The lifeblood of the country has been impacted 

Even in the cities, shops and businesses have been closed for months. Workers have been made redundant and the shop keepers and small business owners who are the lifeblood of the urban economy have not earned income for months.

Travel restrictions and crowd control measures that were necessary to combat Ebola have had the effect of pulling apart the economy. There is a very real prospect of a hunger crisis on the horizon as a side-effect of the Ebola outbreak.

There is no doubt that Ebola needed an immediate response to prevent, treat and control its spread as it threatened to gallop out of control across West Africa. But it will also need a long term response to rebuild the incomes and lives of the communities it has struck.

Ebola has taken and continues to take far too many victims. Food shortages and hunger cannot be allowed to take root in its wake and take even more.

Seán Farrell works for Trócaire.

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Seán Farrell

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