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Like Ebola, like the RUF civil war

By Sulaiman Momodu

Like someone who had just witnessed a horror scene, I screamed very loudly some days ago when I heard that Ebola had broken out in Sierra Leone. A bewildered colleague asked whether someone was dead. I paused for a moment and then replied. “Yes. Someone is dead. There is an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and it has started killing people. It is world news. ”

The shock from news of Ebola breaking out in Kailahun district was largely because I am very much familiar with how things work or do not work in the country. This is the evidence. In just a matter of days, the Ebola death toll has reached at least a dozen.

The sight of someone with Ebola is frightening to say the least. Medics dress like people going to space – covered from head to toe to avoid contracting the virus. In the war against Ebola, some victims of the disease in the West Africa region include medics. In Sierra Leone, my understanding is that most of those who have died as a result of the disease are nurses, paramedics, and members of their families.  The stories of Ebola deaths are pathetic. In some cases, family members have all been cruelly wiped off – husband, wife etc.

Medically speaking, the fear of any form of disease not to mention viral infections should be the beginning of wisdom. HIV which causes AIDS is one. In the case of Ebola, it is even worse. It is one of the world’s deadliest viruses.

With some knowledge of public health and tropical community medicine and health, in addition to journalism, over the years, I have covered stories on health, interacted with people living with HIV and those dying from AIDS; I have visited the Lassa fever isolation centre in Kenema on a number of occasions and was present some years ago at the funeral of Dr. Conteh, the only Lassa fever specialist in the country who was killed by the haemorrhagic disease. I have gone to Cholera isolation centres in the region and witnessed firsthand the ordeal of people severely dehydrated by vibrio cholera, the Cholera disease causing organism. It is always distressing to see people succumbing to the cold hands of death from preventable diseases.

As Ebola goes on the ravage, the outbreak of the virus brings ugly flashbacks of the 11-eleven-year-old war which the RUF unleashed on the country with devastating consequences. The war started in the east, in Kailahun district, miles away from the comfort zone of the president at State House. In years to come, it spread to every corner of the country, ending in the west.

Ebola may look like an evil spirit, but like the RUF civil war, it can be prevented from spreading.  It is incomprehensible that health workers and their families are among the most affected by the Ebola outbreak. If I may ask, did the Ministry of Health not know that there is an Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Liberia to adequately prepare health workers and equip health facilities, especially along border areas?

The lack of support by the then All People Congress government to provide adequate support to soldiers to chase away RUF insurgents subsequently led to some young soldiers chasing the government from power as the war engulfed the nation. While the lives of thousands of our people, most of whom had no idea how government functions, were wasted during the civil war and left hundreds of others maimed for life, Ebola should not be given any chance to do what the war did – kill.

My understanding is that Ebola has reached to other areas beyond Kailahun district. It is unfortunate that before the Ministry of Health could come out to even confirm that there was an outbreak of Ebola, the first reaction by some ministry officials to reports of the disease was hopelessly one of denial.

Like the civil war, the fight against Ebola is everybody’s business. In this regard, the media must be actively engaged in this effort. There is no reason, absolutely no excuse to use Ebola to mock anybody whether dead or alive no matter the circumstance. The reason is simple – it makes mockery of a national tragedy.

In 1991 when the civil war broke out, trivializing the situation and asking ridiculous questions of whether RUF rebels had tails only fueled the conflict as the then kleptomaniac APC government ignored its primary responsibility of providing security for the people.

It is my sincere hope that the fight against Ebola will go beyond calling up press conferences – to be seen on TV – instead, practical measures must be taken to adequately protect health workers who are the country’s frontline soldiers. In addition, very aggressive sensitization of the public on how to prevent the disease must be undertaken using appropriate channels and communication tools. Or are we waiting for Ebola to start kill some senior government officials before we can get serious for once?