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Lockdown is a risk worth taking

SEPTEMBER 17, 2014 By Joseph Dumbuya

EOC Chief, Steven Gaojia
EOC Chief, Steven Gaojia

If the response of callers to a recent morning show on Radio Democracy is anything to go by, then it is safe to say the overwhelming majority of Freetown residents support the three-day lockdown. The reference to ‘Freetown residents’ is deliberate because all the calls but one came from Freetown.

Listening to the programme, I was tempted to think the callers were more interested in enjoying an extended weekend than lending efforts to containing the virus. I dare say because there was not much on how they think the campaign would make a difference in the fight against the disease. There is no disputing the announcement of the lockdown did not come as a surprise to those following ongoing initiatives at bringing an end to the disease. The issue had been a hot topic in the rumour mill and on social media long before the announcement was finally made.

The question on the lips of many had been when and not if it was going to happen. In fact it came as a pleasant surprise to some of us who were having sleepless nights over the thought of a twenty-one day lockdown.

A number of opinions canvassed on the subject were generally favourable. People were prepared to make the sacrifice if it meant stemming the seeming spiral of the virus. However, this feel-good factor was short-lived as people started having a rethink following the opposition to the lockdown by the high profile medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF); warning it will aggravate rather than improve the situation. The charity had argued that a lockdown will provide an opportunity for victims to conceal themselves or go underground if you like. MSF received the backing of the US-based Center for Disease Control, which was disclosed on the BBC by Umaru Fofana quoting an anonymous source.

This left me with some questions to ponder on. First, I wanted to know if MSF was part of the Presidential Taskforce and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). If so, were these concerns tabled for discussing? Also, did MSF fail to convince the others not to go along this path, hence the decision to go public? On the other hand, if they were not tabled, then the motivation to go public raises a numbers of questions.

This notwithstanding, I do not think both have advanced a convincing argument for or against the lockdown. This is not to say I am opposed to the lockdown, as a matter of fact I do support it. I will tell you why but will first try to explain why I think the case for or against has not been well articulated.

I would start with MSF which is opposed to the lockdown for reasons already mentioned. Firstly, I think to oppose the campaign because victims will conceal themselves is scare-mongering. They will do so whether their movement is restricted through quarantine and lockdown or not. Whether it will get worse as a result of the lockdown, I doubt it very much. This is because there is no evidence to suggest the problem is worse in areas under quarantine. The fact that new cases are on the decline in these areas could be a pointer to the contrary.

We have also had many cases of victims running away from places where they had been infected to areas where their status is not known to conceal themselves. We have had relatives of victims snatching them from hospitals for purposes of concealing them. The three-day lockdown will stop this from happening. It will also provide an opportunity to track them as a result of the messages that will be given out.

The benefits of a lockdown far outweigh any concealment of victims that may occur, which it must be said remains a remote possibility. This is because the lockdown will go into great lengths to break the chain of transmission by restricting the possibility of any contact to the barest minimum, to those of the same household. We know this is key to getting rid of the disease.

This is why a decision was reached at a recent Mano River Union meeting to quarantine the epicenters in the affected countries. The experts at that meeting were not oblivious of the challenges regarding concealment, however, where they do occur it becomes easier to trace and isolate unlike when you have victims moving from place to place sometimes to faraway locations to conceal themselves.

On the part of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), while the lockdown is good, it has struggled to communicate the idea to the public. First, we had the confusion over the start date for the campaign. Initial reports indicated the campaign will start on September 18, then we had two start dates being announcement simultaneously. It took nearly two days before sanity was restored and September 19 stood as the real start date.

After a brief pause, the new Coordinator of the EOC, Steven Gaojia, came out to muddy the waters. He had serious problems with the name of the campaign which in his view has negative connotations. He wanted a name change from ‘Lockdown’ or ‘Shutdown’ to ‘House to House Tok’. Unfortunately, he spent more time justifying the change of name and ran out of steam by the time he got to the main issue of explaining what the campaign was about.

While he was able to eloquently explain his duties in terms of providing oversight over the finances and logistics, he really struggled to explain the details about the lockdown. First, there was the howler regarding 21,000 personnel in teams of three each visiting every household in the country. You will be tempted to ask whether Steven really understands what he is talking. This number cannot even cover the East-end of the capital in three days, talk less of the country.

You do not have to be intelligent to know this is not possible. Steven should therefore go back to the drawing board, quickly of course, because he does not have the luxury of time. The most reasonable option available to the EOC is to focus on densely populated areas because they are the most prone to the disease and the challenges it poses.

Steven also struggled to explain what the campaign will entail. He spoke about active listening, empathizing, acknowledging, teaching and a call to action. It’s important for Steven and the EOC to know that you cannot ‘detain’ people in their homes for three days for such vague reasons. What is active listening? What is the difference between active listening and listening?

While restricting movement is a major achievement in itself, people expect to receive teams which are knowledgeable enough to test their knowledge of the disease in terms of symptoms, mode of transmission and prevention, and also explain why coming forward at the earliest is key to surviving the disease.

They should take temperatures and advice according. This does not take long. The rest of the sensitizing, active listening, empathizing, acknowledging and teaching can be done on radio as people will find solace listening to programmes during the period of ‘detention’.

You can do all of these things through phone-in and discussion programmes. It is a fact that the most effectives sensitization has been done by the media, especially radio stations, and for free for that matter. Believe it or leave it, Radio Democracy, Star Radio, Culture Radio and a host of other stations are doing a fantastic job at sensitizing people. These days they allocate most of the airtime to Ebola.

Let me finish off by fulfilling a promise I had made earlier to say why I support the lockdown. In my view, the lockdown is part of a learning process. The disease is new to Sierra Leone, this means we have a lot of learning to do as we try to put it behind us. Granted we may not get everything right but it is worth trying. They say ‘you never fail until you stop trying’.

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