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The blame game is not helpful to Ebola response

January 16, 2015  By Joseph Dumbuya

The habit of blaming new cases of Ebola on outsiders has become the excuse for local authorities in the Northern Province and the Western Area. By the way this is not new even though it may be getting worse. You will recall how the outbreak of the virus in the Western Area and the sudden rise in numbers were greeted with all sorts of conspiracy theories, denials and noisy mischief peddling regarding new infections.

Until recently, it is not uncommon to hear people attribute new Ebola cases in the Western Area on people from Port Loko District, while the media provide ready oxygen for these claims. It seemed to some of us at the time this was merely a strategy by the Western Area local authorities and patronizing politicians to divert attention from their failings rather than lending serious efforts to containing the disease. Sorry to say, this view has not changed over time.

Let me hasten to say, I am not ruling out this possibility. However, the evidence is just not there to support such claims; where they do they are grossly exaggerated. Shockingly, the media reports have been one-sided. Even though the reverse – Ebola victims from Western Area infecting people in Port Loko District – is a real possibility, it has been ignored by a complicit media. I agree this is double standards.

This is despite the Western Area amply providing the fertilizer for the disease to thrive by virtue of it being the most densely populated part of the country.  Additionally, it is the filthiest and expectedly host to majority of the slums in the country.

Over the weekend, President Koroma in his usual outreach on Ebola around the country was subjected to a long and boring talk on how a recent spike in Tonkolili was cause by a victim from Port Loko.  The story goes that the victim was hidden in a bush by his host unbeknown to other members of the community from where he was treated to traditional medicines until he passed away and was buried secretly also. Was the community complicit in hiding the victim or were they genuinely unaware of the presence of an unwell person from Port Loko? I do not have a clue but this is just food for thought. The story goes that all of those who came into contact with the victim have themselves passed away.

At times one cannot help but feel sorry for President Koroma having to sit through meetings both private and public and leaving them not sure whether he has been told the truth. Most times even as an observer you are left feeling the President is being fed with half truths and lies.

But you do not need any telling that some of these people are too affiliated or enmeshed in the scheme of things to be credible. You see people who are fearful of losing their preferential status in the system should they speak the truth and expose their failings.  Also in the mix are celebrated sycophants who are desperate to be in the good books. To add to the President’s misery, some of these people can go into lengths to block those who are just interested in telling it as it is.

The President has to find a way of dealing with this problem. I do not have time to make all the suggestions less I distract from my main focus. For now I would suggest he should also listen to a wide array of sources – persons outside APC party circles including selected religious leaders, independent opposition voices, the media and serious civil society actors. He could keep a list of representatives of organizations he would want to speak with.

The message from the local authorities in Tonkolili is simple: ‘We’re doing our bit to contain the virus but our counterparts in Port Loko District have been reckless in their duties. Now look at the problem they are causing us’. The Tonkolili District authority would want us to believe any authority in the country can stop people from travelling to other parts of country. Fortunately, you do not have to be a rocket scientist to know this is not possible.

But to blame the authorities in Port Loko for not stopping an Ebola victim from travelling to Tonkolili District is unfair. To assume the local authorities in Port Loko District have complete control over movements of its people in and out of the district shows their counterparts in Tonkolili do not know what they are talking about. If the central government with all the resources at its disposal cannot control movements across the borders, how could the authorities in Port Loko with limited resources and severe challenges do?

If the authorities in Tonkolili think they can shift their failings on Port Loko then they must think again. Now, this is a two-way strait. Can the authorities in Tonkolili explain why they failed to stop the said Ebola victim from entering the district? If anything, it exposes serous failings on their part and pointing fingers will not help them instead it exposes themselves to public scrutiny. Most importantly, it calls into question apparent weaknesses in surveillance and contact tracing. It further exposes weaknesses in the effectiveness with which the byelaws are enforced.

Compare this with how a village in the Bonthe District handled a similar situation – the third Ebola case in that part of the country. The people did not waste time beating the dead horse and blaming the authorities in the Western Area for ‘allowing’ the victim to travel to their district, rather they isolated the victim from the rest of the community, and passed away without infecting any member of the host community not even his relatives. This action was taken by villagers mind you. This is what the people of Tonkolili have failed to do and are blaming others.

This case of Bonthe provides the best hope for eradicating the disease. People should know what to do when faced with sick people showing Ebola like symptoms. The people of Bonthe have shown that you cannot stop everybody from coming into the district in spite of best efforts, but you can stop them from infecting the community by simple inexpensive measures. Once we are able to learn this basic lesson, the virus will be a thing of the past sooner than later.

It must be told that this problem is not unique to Tonkolili District. Other part of the Northern province and the Western Area are equally struggling to learn this simple lesson. In the case of the latter, this is despite benefiting the most from sensitization than other parts of the country.

An important lesson for the authorities managing the Ebola programme is that we should begin to focus more resources on surveillance, tracing and isolating sick people rather than restrictions, some of which are not supported by evidence. Unlike the former, the latter is sustainable. Added to this, some of the restrictions raise serious questions bothering on human rights and the livelihood of citizens. Already, Ibrahim Tommy of the Center for Accountability and the Rule of Law keeps saying that some of the restrictions are not evidence based.

Indeed the obsession with restrictions demands a rethink. After all, people who are capable of infecting others with blood or body fluids are very unlikely to leave their homes. The important thing is for people to know what to do with sick people from within and outside the community.

It is therefore imperative to lend serious efforts towards sustainable community ownership of the processes with minimal interference from outsiders. This means they should initiate ideas and come up with resources to handle the disease. Pujehun, Bonthe, Koinadugu and Kailahun have shown that ownership of the process is key to containing the virus. The Western Area poses the most serious challenge largely because the local structures are weak and uncoordinated. There is a feeling among local communities that people coming from outside are into for the money. I am not talking here of health workers. Fortunately, NERC has already started making the right noises in this direction as they kick start phase two of the community ownership of the process.

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