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Column: What is life like in a city hit by Ebola? An Irish voice from Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is a very friendly, sociable place but that is changing. People are avoiding church and the mosque, and shops have chlorine buckets outside for people to wash their hands before they enter.

Saoirse McHugh Environmentalist

LIFE IN FREETOWN goes on but the city is a very different place since the outbreak of the Ebola virus.

A lot of shops are closed and people are avoiding any unnecessary movement. They are frightened. This is a completely unprecedented crisis and people don’t know how, when, or if it is going to end.

There is no curfew but there is a ban on motorbike taxis between the hours of 7pm and 7am so a lot of people have no way to get around, especially in the rural areas where only motorbikes can pass on the bad roads.

Even during the day there is a lot less traffic on the street and people are avoiding markets or anywhere else there would normally be public gatherings, like church or the mosque.

A lot of the shops that have stayed open have chlorine buckets outside for people to wash their hands before they enter.

Sierra Leone Ebola Source: AP/Press Association Images

Empty streets are seen during a three-day lockdown to prevent the spread on the Ebola virus, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014.

Living by the ABC rule

Sierra Leone is a very friendly, very sociable place but that is changing. People are living by the ABC rule: Avoid Bodily Contact. Nobody shakes hands or touches anymore. There is definitely a different atmosphere. It’s a lot quieter. People are definitely changing their behaviour.

At the very start of the crisis there were a lot of conspiracy theories about how the virus started and how it was spread. People were claiming that the government was giving it to opposition supporters. Thankfully that seems to have changed. People accept that Ebola is here and it is very real.

Trócaire has concentrated its efforts raising public awareness about what Ebola is and how to avoid it. It can’t be over-stated how important it is for people to know the facts. There obviously is a risk from Ebola but once you take precautions, it is a low risk. Once you don’t come into contact with a dead body or an infected person, you are at very low risk of contracting Ebola.

Some of the awareness raising has focused on the cultural practice of washing dead bodies, which was one of the major reasons the disease spread. People have had to be taught that they must not have any contact at all with the remains of people who have died from the virus.

We are also providing psycho-social support to survivors and to family members of people who have died. Stigma is a big issue for survivors and relatives. They find it difficult to be accepted back into their communities – people avoid them and they are left very isolated.

Ebola Hard Choices Source: AP/Press Association Images

A healthcare worker stands inside a bowl filled with chlorinated water after working in an Ebola Isolation ward in Hastings, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014. 

The outbreak is compounding the country’s existing problems 

The focus, both here and internationally, is obviously on containing the virus and stopping its spread, but there are also huge long-term problems that Sierra Leone will face as a result of this crisis.

People in rural areas are hugely reliant on farming. July, August and September are the hungry months over here – the months when people are waiting on the next harvest. Thankfully most farmers seem to have been able to harvest but they can’t get to the markets with their crops so they can’t earn any money. There is a fear that once their food supplies run out, they will be left with nothing.

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Farming communities are going to need additional support over the coming months, even if the Ebola crisis comes under control. We will be scaling-up our work in rural areas to provide additional seeds and tools to families vulnerable to hunger.

There is also a real fear that hunger will spread to the towns and cities. Food is not coming from the provinces any more and there are shortages of vegetables and the local rice that people like to eat. Lots of businesses are closed and it’s the lowest paid workers who are worst affected. Most businesses linked to the hospitality sector – hotels, bars, restaurants – are all closed and a lot of the staff have been let go. They have no way to earn money and no idea how long this will go on for.

The loss of health care workers will have a ripple effect 

The health service here was very weak even before this started. Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. An already weak system has been made weaker now because so many health workers have died. How are the staff who have died going to be replaced? Who is going to train them?

The health service is completely over-stretched. Women are giving birth with no help simply because there is nobody to help.

The damage to the health service is just one way that this crisis is going to have a long-term effect on the country. Schools are closed and a lot of children may never go back. The damage to the education system will be significant.

Even if Ebola is stopped in the morning, it will take a long time for Sierra Leone to recover.

Sabrina Brett is Trócaire’s Programme Manager in Sierra Leone.

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About the author:

Saoirse McHugh  / Environmentalist

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