SEPTEMBER 11,2014 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
The government of Sierra Leone last week announced a national shutdown of the country for four days – well that has since been reduced to three days – beginning 19 September.
According to the newly appointed boss of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), Steven Gaojia, “the strategy is not a military exercise, neither undue economic hardship imposed on the people, but rather to reach out to 100% of households with correct information on Ebola, increase community acceptance of Ebola affected persons, especially children, promote hand washing with soap at households, and build public confidence”.
Although yours truly thinks a total shutdown of the country is a kneejerk reaction which could be counterproductive, a view held by Doctors without Borders, the medical humanitarian group helping us to beat the disease in its track, it’s my avid hope that the action would yield its intended dividend.
In the words of President Ernest Bai Koroma, the Ebola virus outbreak needs “extraordinary measures”, hence, perhaps government’s decision to embark on an action which will cause great discomfort to citizens and a monumental loss to the country’s coffers, as a whooping US$1.3m will be spent to roll-out activities during the three days.
For the average Sierra Leonean, the sacrifice of staying at home for three days is worth more than being on the street and having to contend with eluding the elusive Ebola virus, which cruelly kills an alarming percentage of its victims. Although having some dissimilarities with the civil war which killed at least 50,000 of our compatriots, the similarity between the war and outbreak lies in the fact that many more innocent souls are being annihilated, almost on a daily basis.
Consequently, the three days shutdown is a monumental sacrifice that many Sierra Leoneans are willing to take, albeit under excruciating circumstances. But, like during the armed conflict when we endured curfews, we are again resolute to defeat the enemy – a hideous invisible foe, which unlike its predecessor is invisible, yet can be defeated.
That being the case, a few questions remain unanswered about the readiness and preparedness of the EOC to effectively roll-out the activities outlined during the three days.
To begin with, there was confusion about the number of days the shutdown will last for. Initially the official government release said four days – 18 to 21 September – only for another senior official to backtrack that it was actually planned for three days – 19-21 September – with President Koroma slated to deliver a major speech to the nation on the 18 September.
This apparent confusion within government, reminiscent to the start of the outbreak, has since prompted the new boss at the EOC to apologise for the “misinformation”, perhaps too eager to ensure that nothing goes wrong, as he is eager to please the President after he was axed from his ministerial position in 2013.
The second question the jury is still out on is the training of twenty-one thousand volunteers and health workers who are to embark on the ‘ose-to-ose tok’ during the three-days.
One needs not search too deep to find evidences of poorly planned immunization campaigns which failed to reach their target populations. Indeed, most often than not, health workers and volunteers are overzealous to collect the money than engage in the tedious task of scaling mountainous areas and reaching remote rural areas to inoculate children with vaccines for polio, for example. I hope, though, that the three-day lockdown will be the exception and not the rule or business as usual.
The third question that needs to be answered is after the shutdown what next? Already there are mooted suggestions that government might shutdown the country for twenty-one days if the intents and purposes of the three-days are not achieved. That, to my understanding, means if the virus continues to spread, then the dreaded twenty-one days shutdown will be ordered, much to the chagrin of many.
As we hope that things improve drastically during the shutdown, the stark reality is that we are not faring any better at present. The disease continues to race ahead of us; districts like Port Loko, Bombali and the Western Area, which include Freetown, have now recorded high cases of Ebola. In fact, Port Loko and the Western Area now have close to two hundred Ebola cases!
Thus, should the three days shutdown fail to achieve result, instead of imposing another inhumane twenty-one days national shutdown, towns which apparently are running away as new epicenters should instead be placed under “cordon sanitaire” just as Kailahun and Kenema – two of the epicenters – in the east, which have been cut-off from the rest of the country since 7 August.
At the time the decision was made to quarantine the two eastern districts, both had 365 and 214 Ebola cases respectively. The numbers may not have abated, but residents believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In that regard, therefore, government should seriously think about imposing a “cordon sanitaire” on Port Loko district as part of the ‘extraordinary measures’ promised by President Koroma to defeat the virus in its rampaging track.
The district is geographically closest to Freetown, with many of its denizens having a penchant for visiting the capital city either to trade or to visit relatives. Their craving is made easier by the proximity and the fact that they only have to spend forty-five minutes of a voyage across the estuary, aboard a ferry or locally dugout canoe, and they are in Freetown. The fact that these people are everyday streaming into Freetown, unlike their quarantined compatriots in Kailahun and Kenema, who have had to cope with such inconvenience, albeit for our mutual benefits, makes the case for locking up the north-western district even more compelling.
Already, health officers and the municipal council have set up checkpoints to screen passengers embarking and disembarking from the ferry to and from Lungi, in Port Loko district, probably in fear that some Ebola patients might be among the crowded passengers. But that might not be enough for a virus which is constantly mutating and infecting more members of the population.
Thus, as we brace up for the three-day national lockdown, it is only prudent that government should seriously think about locking down Port Loko district, a district which is all but in name an epicenter district as a result of the escalating Ebola cases, which undoubtedly poses a frightening risk to the capital’s two million inhabitants.