Living with Ebola in Freetown: “It feels like the whole country is in quarantine”
By Solomon Sogbandi, Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone.
Since the first cases of Ebola were reported in March, life in Sierra Leone has changed beyond recognition.
So far, the World Health Organization has confirmed more than 5,200 Ebola cases in Sierra Leone alone and more than 13,700 across the world. More than 4,500 people have died of the disease – 1,500 in my home country.
Friends abroad often ask me what life is like here at the moment.
I can only describe it as horrifying.
Every morning, I wake up in my house in Freetown with the sound of the terrifying pictures and stories coming out of the TV and the radio. People are desperately trying, and in many cases failing, to get medical help that would make the difference between life and death. Doctors and nurses are at breaking point. Entire communities are quarantined, lacking access to sufficient food and water.
Before the outbreak, I used to go to my office in the centre of Freetown every day and my children would go to school.
Now we barely leave the house. We don’t visit anybody and no one visits us. The phone and social media are our main means of communicating with others. My children’s school is closed so they are inside all day.
Nowadays, the streets of Freetown are not as crowded as before the outbreak. Even though some people seem to continue with their lives as normal, the general feeling is of fear. People are scared of being in contact with someone who might be ill, so more often than not they stay at home.
Survival is becoming a real challenge even for those not carrying the disease. Even buying food is hard. Many shops are closed and prices have rocketed. We are barely managing. Food is not coming from abroad and many airlines have cancelled flights to the country.
It feels like the whole country is in quarantine.
But the situation in the countryside is even worse.
The government is doing all it can under the circumstances. They have been issuing information on what to do and not to do to avoid catching the illness. But the Ebola outbreak exposed the massive problems with our health system, which is now being challenged beyond breaking point, particularly in rural areas.
Hospitals are struggling to provide care with little resources and scarce medical personnel. This means that people in need of medical help for illnesses other than Ebola are being turned away, even when they have potentially life threatening conditions such as malaria or complications during child birth. Essential care for cancer seems to have been put on hold.
Another big issue is the reintegration of Ebola survivors back to their communities. We have heard many stories of people who survive the disease but are not allowed back or are stigmatized.
While some international operations, for example from the UK, are doing a lot of work to help those in need, the situation remains desperate.
Even based on the World Health Organization’s most conservative estimates for the spread of the disease, a lot more support than that pledged by the world to date needs to be put into place if Ebola is to be controlled.
We desperately need the international community to step up their efforts, and not only the provision of financial assistance. What people in Sierra Leone really need are doctors and nurses ready to work and bring their expertize to fight this cruel illness. This can only been done with a concerted international effort and global political resolve.
This is a global crisis which demands a global response.
Too many lives are at stake. There’s no time to waste.
This Blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.
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