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THREE DAYS SHUTDOWN:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

SEPTEMBER 23, 2014 By Mohamed Massaquoi & Alusine Sesay

Health workers lack protective equipment during sensitization

Health workers lack protective equipment during sensitization

President Ernest Bai Koroma on Thursday, 18 September, declared a three-day sit-at-home Ebola campaign across Sierra Leone as one of the strategies in the fight to stem the Ebola disease which has claimed the lives of over 500 people in the country.

The president in his nationwide address said Ebola is one of the biggest tragedies to have befallen the nation and that to overcome the disease, each and every Sierra Leonean must play a role to avoid contracting the virus and prevent others from it.

“My Government has declared a three-day stay-at-home ‘Ose-to-Ose Ebola Tok’ campaign to get this message to every house and family in the country. Everybody in every house in every community in this country is very important in our fight against Ebola….These are extra-ordinary times, and extra-ordinary times require extra-ordinary measures.

“The Ose-to-Ose Ebola Tok campaign is one such extra-ordinary measure. The three-day campaign will start tomorrow, Friday the 19th, and ends on Sunday the 21st of September 2014. During this Ose-to-Ose Ebola Tok campaign, 7,136 trained teams composed of health workers, community volunteers and other NGO partners will be going from house-to-house across Sierra Leone to raise awareness about the Ebola virus disease and enlist family/community support and participation to the response. It is necessary that all family members are met at home by the visiting team members who will provide correct information on the disease, advice family members on what to do if a family member is sick, promote hand washing with soap as an effective means of protection, share some information material on Ebola and mark their homes with a sticker.”

The three days national exercise was closely monitored by Concord Times and our team looked at specific issues, ranging from logistics, the role of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, international partners, communities, and religious leaders, among others.

Just ahead of the three days campaign, head of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), Steven Gaojia, said they are working very closely with the World Health Organization and other partners to make the campaign a success.

Price hike

Generally, and as expected, prices of basic commodities shot up in the days leading up to the sit-at-home. This unpatriotic act spiraled out of control on the eve of the shutdown, to the extent that some people could not access some essential items.

As it is always the case in Sierra Leone, traders took advantage of the situation and raised the prices of basic commodities like pepper, palm oil, onion, rice, fish et al.

When Concord Times undertook a survey to ascertain the prices of basic commodities on 18 September, a cup of pepper was sold at Le5,000 as against Le1,000; a pint of palm oil was sold at Le4,000 as against Le2,000 etc. Due to the rush amid panic buying as people had no alternative, they bought these commodities to sustain them during the stay-at-home.

During the lockdown, Concord Times gathered that some homes in Freetown in particular ran out of basic commodities because they were not in position to stockpile as much food as they could to sustain them at home. Even basic recharge cards to make calls to friends and families were unavailable.

Three days lockdown in Freetown

In a desperate effort to bring the outbreak under control, thousands of health care workers and volunteers went from house-to-house in crowded urban neighbourhoods and remote villages, hoping to find and isolate infected Ebola patients.

Health officials urged the sick to leave their homes and seek treatment. As the lockdown took effect, wooden tables lay empty at the capital’s usually vibrant markets, and only a dog scavenging for food could be seen on one normally crowded street in Freetown.

Amid the heat and frequent power cuts, many residents sat in the frontage of their homes, chatting with family members and neighbours.

Ambulances were on standby to bring any sick people to the hospital for isolation. The health care workers also handed out 1.7 million bars of soap – 200,000 more they were supposed to distribute – and dispensed advice on Ebola to households. Many residents, especially those at the hilltop, complained that the 7,136 trained personnel did not visit their communities.

In centre Freetown, there was report that youths who were involved in the house-to-house sensitization were either drunk or not serious about the campaign.

“We are disappointed in this entire campaign, we expected this process to have been very comprehensive in which the health workers should have been very swift in responding to emergency calls, but the entire process is jam-packed, the EOC was very slow in their responds. There were dead bodies all over the place from Waterloo to the west-end of Freetown awaiting burial,” Mohamed Sandi, a community leader at Grafton told Concord Times.

At Up-Gun turntable, a suspected Ebola case was lying on the roadside. She was identified as Asiratu Bangura from Port Loko District and she spent more than five hours before she was taken away by a team of military officers and health workers.

Another suspected case was seen at Richard Allen Secondary School. Though health personnel and state functionaries were around that vicinity, yet the man was not taken to the treatment centre until 5pm. A woman from Kenema was also arrested at 22J Circular Road, suspected of being an Ebola patient.

Eight Ebola victims were buried in Waterloo: 3 from Monkey Bush, 1 from Fullah Town, 1 from Kamajo Bridge, Mango Farm, and 1 from Dr. Bash clinic, among others.

Religion

Blessed with religious tolerance, Sierra Leone witnessed a display of religious faith from both the Muslim and the Christian communities. Though the lockdown restricted all religious congregations, the Muslim and Christian communities contributed through the Independent Radio Network (IRN) – a network of radio stations throughout the country – to offer prayers against the Ebola disease.

On the first day of the lockdown, Islamic clerics offered profound prayers on the Voice of Islam, invoking the intervention of the Almighty Allah to cast away the dreaded Ebola viral disease out of the country. Through the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the IRN radio network, the Muslim prayer was aired across the country with listeners responding ‘Ameen’. The Muslim prayer was followed by a demonstration of the Christian faith and belief in the powers of Jesus Christ.

At exactly 6pm on Sunday, the entire country was greeted with a thunderous shout of JESUS! in response to a prayer that was being offered on radio by an evangelical Christian religious leader. The entire country was thrilled by the shouting to the extent that many were tempted to break the normal rule – moving out of their houses to jubilate on the streets.

The point is, should people back up such faith with works, the issue of Ebola would be a thing of the past. But the irony is that some people need constant education on the dreaded Ebola to guard themselves against infection on a large scale, as many still largely ignore advisory from health professionals.

Police brutality

There were reports of police manhandling people at various locations across the city, but the Local Unit Commander of Eastern Police Division, Amos Kargbo, said they were just enforcing the law. It was alleged that police were harassing people even at their respective houses.

“We’re just enforcing the law, you know some Sierra Leoneans are difficult to handle. There was a national broadcast by the President in which every Sierra Leonean was advised to stay at home. Some people used the opportunity to take to the streets without the necessarily documents. In fact a trader very close to this police station opened his shop on the grounds that he wanted to sell some food items to a businessman. He was arrested and detained,” he said.

But the president in his address to the nation encouraged law enforcement officers to return people who venture out on the streets back to their homes.

In Kenema

Muslim worshippers at the Nicole Street Mosque in Lumbembu Section in Kenema city were reported to have been beaten by security forces for allegedly flouting the three days nationwide lockdown.

Reports have it that on Saturday, 20 September, at about 7pm, worshippers decided to have their evening prayer in congregation, and were promptly arrested by the police.

Coordinator of Council of Imams in Nongowa Chiefdom, Sheikh Swaray, condemned what he said was disproportionate action by the security forces. He said though they admonished Muslim worshipers to offer their prayers at home prior to the nationwide lock-down, the beating of those worshipers did not justify the disproportionate action of the security personnel.

In Kono

In Kono, during the three days campaign, a police personnel attached to the Koidu Police Station was found dead in a ditch along Kaikondu Road in Kono city. According to report, PC Sahr David Komba reported for duty on Thursday, 18 September, before the stay-at-home exercise.

“His body was discovered on Friday [19 September] by the police,” local journalist Abass Kallon told Concord Times. “The Local Unit Commander refused to respond to questions regarding the incident on the pretext that the investigation is in progress.”

Meanwhile, both President Koroma and head of the EOC have said the three-day campaign was a success as scores of Ebola cases were reported during the exercise.

The jury is still out though whether the much touted exercise achieved its long term goal of minimizing new infection rates and eventual eradication of the Ebola disease.

For now, Sierra Leoneans are just relieved that they are ‘free’ once again to move from place-to-place in their quest to eke out a living, with the hope that the virus will be defeated sooner, rather than latter, and that their lives will return to normal.