Ebola and Christmas Eve in Conakry

By: Chernoh Alpha M. Bah

December 24, 2014

Today is Christmas Eve and I am still in Guinea. I arrived in Conakry by road from Freetown on Friday night and have been here for nearly a week now, trying to find out what is happening here with the Ebola outbreak.

I have not heard a single ambulance sound since my arrival. I have not seen a single quarantined home in Conakry since my arrival. There are no restrictions on travel across the country. In fact, international flights – Air France, Brussels Airlines, and Air Maroc – are still flying into Guinea’s international airport unhindered. All public spaces – offices, hairdressing saloons, barber shops, boutiques, market centers, hotels, restaurants, shops, banks, and internet cafes – are operating with normal hours.

The government’s response to the Ebola crisis in Guinea has not affected everyday life. Nobody is accused of holding a public gathering in violation of any newly enforced emergency law. Weddings with convoys of vehicles and teeming crowds are part of the daily public events in Conakry this December. Mosques are still performing funeral rituals and relatives are still burying their dead. I have watched three funeral processions this week without the participation of health workers. There is a planned national beauty contest – Miss Guinea 2014 – scheduled for December 27 in Conakry. And for three consecutive days now, political party leaders – mainly opposition politicians – are engaged in several public ceremonies remembering the death of former Guinean president, Lansana Conte. The events are held by Conte’s Party of Unity and Progress (PUP), and hundreds from the opposition ranks are in attendance. This is a large political gathering. President Alpha Conde was a guest in one of the sessions. Nobody has been arrested or accused of political engagement in the middle of Ebola.

This is all in Guinea, the country that reportedly recorded the first case of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The statistics of infections and deaths here are still lower than in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, a house-to-house search for potential Ebola patients ordered by the president had started in Freetown before I left the country. Last week, President Koroma announced additional restrictions on individual freedoms in his battle against the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. For the first time in the history of the country, the larger Sierra Leonean population will not have their usual public celebrations of Christmas and New Year in Sierra Leone. Since the death of Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Sierra Leone has not been the same. The state of emergency imposed by the president in the wake of Dr. Khan’s death has turned the country into a battle field. People have been going through turbulent times as communities continue to take stock of deaths and infections. Many Sierra Leoneans have died since Khan’s death and the infection statistics continue to climb. The country continues to lead the world’s news headlines on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Months after a state of emergency was issued in response to the epidemic and the statistics are still not looking good; the country’s chances of survival still look bleak. State functionaries are claiming that the hike in death statistics and infection numbers is caused by people’s failure to give up their old habits such as touching the sick and washing the dead.

Western scientists have told us that this virus is transmitted through body fluids – the most lethal form of transmission being the remains of Ebola dead persons. In Guinea, there is obviously no panic over the dead; there is no restriction on public gatherings; there is no limitation on people’s movement; there is no control over market hours. The statistics on Ebola deaths and infections are still far below other countries in the Mano River region. But in Sierra Leone the Ebola epidemic continues to claims lives. It has reinvented the familiar scenes of the rebel war but this time with varied challenges to the customary life of communities.

Sociologists have long connected the evolution of language to changing historical moments in a society. In Sierra Leone, the Ebola epidemic has introduced – alongside the deaths and infections – a new vocabulary to the existing language of depression and suffering in the country: phrases like quarantined homes, suspected cases, confirmed cases, lockdown, no public gatherings, epicenters, holding centers, treatment centers, red zones, isolated communities, burial teams, swap teams, temperature machines and 117 are new currencies to the common language of the ordinary people. These are expressions of distress depicting a people in crisis. With the rebel war, a chain of expressions – short sleeve and long sleeve – were also added to everyday use depicting the horrific brutality of the period.

The Ebola epidemic has changed the country for the worst. In the middle of the ensuing confusion, a draconian climate, resulting principally from President Koroma’s handling of the crisis, has engulfed the country. The president sees the epidemic with military eyes and his assumption of military powers to respond to a public health crisis has exacerbated the situation. The employment of police and the army to enforce emergency regulations, the restrictions on people’s movement and public gatherings do not seem to serve as antidotes. Horrible statistics have emerged with the introduction of draconian measures in recent times. The numbers of infected people have tripled and the death numbers have similarly climbed over the last four months in the wake of the amplification of robust measures: quarantines, lockdowns, checkpoints have only increased people’s suffering and added to the general chaos in the national response.

Corruption stories, arrest of journalists, suppression of dissents and the militarization of the country seem to be the major achievements of the national response to the epidemic. These ugly stories of suppression, of individual sufferings, of police brutality, and of the selective application of emergency are sadly clouding all efforts against the epidemic.

In a recent radio interview, the president said the rise in infection numbers are due to the success of the robust efforts by health workers who are now getting the sick people out of the communities. Government officials have said that people were hiding their sick relatives in their homes instead of taking them to health centers. International aid workers, on the other hand, report that the epidemic has made healthcare inaccessible to pregnant women and babies. Reports of pregnant women dying during child birth have increased since the Ebola outbreak. Doctors, midwives and nurses are scared of attending to pregnant women in labor for fear of contracting Ebola. Every sick person today in Sierra Leone is considered a potential Ebola patient. Nearly all of the health centers in the country have been transformed into Ebola holding centers. This creates fear in the minds of those who might want to seek medical care for usual health conditions like malaria.

Sierra Leone had a battered health infrastructure before the Ebola outbreak. Health ministry officials confirmed that the country had only five ambulances – very old ones – for a population of over five million people before the outbreak. This is in contrast to the annual expenditure on transportation for public officials; nearly every senior public official in the country, including ministers and their deputies, drives a vehicle with an estimated cost of between thirty and fifty thousand United States dollars.

The question we have to ask is this: are we going to end Ebola with more quarantines and lockdowns? Have national response measures assumed by President Koroma succeeded in containing this epidemic? For now, it seems the quarantine and lockdown measures of the president have only succeeded in containing the population, not the Ebola epidemic. The state of emergency has equally tamed the dissenting voices from the opposition and some sections of the media. It has not stemmed the casualties of deaths and infections wrecked by the Ebola epidemic. People are now trapped between a raging Ebola epidemic and a growing “democratic dictatorship.” We hope 2015 will bring us something better: hope!

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