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Ebola restrictions relaxed, the difficult task ahead

August 10, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin

President Ernest Bai Koroma
President Ernest Bai Koroma

 “Extra-ordinary challenges require extra-ordinary measures. The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) poses an extra-ordinary challenge to our nation. Consequently, and in line with the Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act Number 6 of 1991, I hereby proclaim a State of Public Emergency to enable us take a more robust approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak,” President Ernest Bai Koroma, 1 August, 2014.

Over a year ago, President Ernest Koroma, declared a State of Public Health Emergency as the country was confronted with an Ebola outbreak. The health emergency restrictions were aimed at minimising, if not completely stemming the spread of the virus that was infecting and killing Sierra Leoneans in droves.

The health emergency restrictions then include: establishing a presidential task force to lead the campaign against the virus; quarantining all epicenters; police and military to give support to frontline health workers; NGO’s to do their work without restrictions; restriction of movement around epicentres and homes where the disease is identified until cleared by health officials; restriction of public meetings and gatherings, with the exception of essential meetings related to Ebola sensitisation and education; activation of surveillance and house-to-house searches to trace and quarantine Ebola victims and suspects; empowering Paramount Chiefs to establish bye-laws that would complement other efforts to deal with the outbreak; instructing the general populace to report all deaths to the authorities prior to burial;  instituting new protocols for arriving and departing passengers at the Lungi International Airport; cancelling all foreign trips by ministers and other government officials, except absolutely essential engagements; and declaring 4 August, 2014 a National Stay at Home Day for Family Reflection, Education and Prayers on the Ebola outbreak.

Additional restrictions later followed. They include: the declaration of a three days stay at home; commercial motorcycles to ply only between 6pm – 6am every day; reduction in number of passengers in public transportation; banning of cinemas and other entertainment centres across the country; closure of all schools in the country, among others.

But in recent weeks, there were lots of outcry from CSOs, the Human Rights Commission Sierra Leone (HRCSL), and the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) over the implementation of the emergency restrictions, with consistent calls that the restrictions had outlived their usefulness, hence should be abolished.

Last Friday, President Koroma finally made a state broadcast lifting some of the emergency restrictions with immediate effect. According to him, “Some measures [restrictions] are no longer deemed necessary at this stage of the fight. My government will lift the following restrictions with immediate effect: The prohibition on public meetings and gatherings is lifted, the prohibition on sporting activities is lifted, the prohibition of nightclubs and video centre operations is lifted, the prohibition on market and general activities is lifted. However, the ban on markets and general trading on Sundays shall remain in place, Okadas to operate from 6 am to midnight daily.”

Sierra Leoneans marked the one-year anniversary of the virus recently with a post-Ebola recovery launch by President Koroma, who promised to rebuild the country’s health system, strengthen the educational sector, create a social protection schemes by restoring lives and livelihoods to persons who have suffered from the virus, revamp the economy, and facilitate private sector recovery and growth.

He said at the launching that “Support must get to those who need it; seeds must get to farmers; medicines to the sick, educational materials to the pupils. The program must ensure that frontlines of the battle get far more of the resources than the backlines. That must be the guiding principle, for that is what will get this country resilient and our people well-served.” Certainly, this development is a sure way to the country’s post-Ebola recovery plan.

But analysts say the country has a history of financial malfeasance by government officials; therefore, it would be difficult to escape the corrupt trap and implement the post-Ebola recovery plan to the letter.

President Koroma should use this window to now fulfill his promise of rooting out corruption and inefficiency in his government. This herculean task should be done quickly, because he faces high expectations, including strengthening the country’s economy in the face of daunting challenges from his constituents and the international community.

Equitable distribution of economic development and resources should also be looked into as part of measures to consolidate the gains of our nascent democracy. There’s no doubt we have a lot of work ahead.

Rather than dwell on the pains the Ebola outbreak has inflicted on the nation, the outbreak should serve as a renewed source of inspiration for the fight against corruption, rebuilding the weak health sector, governance structures and trust among Sierra Leoneans, and revamping the ‘Agenda for Prosperity’.

Ebola remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases, claiming over 11,000 lives between 2014/15, most of whom are women and children. Our progress towards ultimately defeating the virus is dependent on aggressive, sustained awareness and total compliance to the Standard Operating Procedures.

Furthermore, relevant authorities and institutions should ramp up effort in all districts and chiefdoms to avoid complacency. If they don’t, a resurgence is inevitable.

Also promising, global leaders have mapped out a long term plan, not just to beat Ebola, but to wipe it out for good, and to contain any future outbreak.

Although our challenges are humbling, I’m hopeful.

Finally, in the words of President Koroma, “the easing of restrictions is not a sign that Ebola is over. It is not. We must remain on our guard. The risk has receded but Ebola has not fully retreated. We must stay the course.” 

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