As the threat of Coronavirus looms over Sierra Leone

By Osman Benk Sankoh

Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are three neighbouring countries in the sub-region with a lot of commonalties—some good, and others not worth remembering. The rippling effects of the civil wars in the 90s in Sierra Leone and Liberia did not stop at the doorsteps of these countries. Guinea also bore the brunt of hosting refugees, strained its economy as a result, and even sent troops to fight and die in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Also, during the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, more than 28,000 persons from the three countries were infected. By the time it ended in 2016, 11,000 souls had perished, according to the WHO. These instances are a sad reminder of a phrase first used by the aristocratic Prussian diplomat of the Napoleonic era, Klemens Wenzel Forst von Metternich. He popularized the saying: “When France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.” Now, “the phrase is often used to explain the ripple effects of American actions on politics, policy, economics and culture around the world.”

Like the civil crises and Ebola, both Guinea and Liberia have reported cases of the coronavirus. Alimou Sow, a Spokesperson for the European Union Delegation in Guinea, had confirmed that one of its employees, a 49-year-old Belgian had tested positive upon returning to the country from Europe.

During the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, more than 28,000 persons from the three countries were infected. By the time it ended in 2016, 11,000 souls had perished, according to the WHO.

Liberia’s first case of the Coronavirus is Dr Nathaniel Blama, the Executive Director of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency who returned to the country from Geneva, Switzerland after attending a conference. In an address to the nation, President George Weah, said: “Mr Blama chose not to be quarantined, in keeping with the protocols that were in place at the airport.”

Hours later, video clips surfaced on social media platforms of children running behind men in hazmat suits who had gone to Blama’s residence to get him to be tested and quarantined. Without thinking of the consequences, it may have on unprotected persons who may come in close contact with Liberia’s index case, some adults joined the kids with their cellphones taking videos like photographers. Not too long ago in Liberia, such a sight would have been unimaginable, but 2014 is now a distant past.

While Sierra Leone (at the time of writing) is yet to report its first case, Ebola survivor, Santigie Kizito Bangura, is worried that it is just a matter of time before the country is added to the statistics. The Deputy Secretary-General of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors fears that the country is yet to fully implement the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures as it did in 2014. He also wants Ebola survivors to be trained as paramedics to help contain a potential COVID19 surge.

Kizito was 28 years old in 2014 when he contracted Ebola. His parents, sister and daughter, lost their lives. Now, the former teacher wants survivors to share their experiences through radio talk shows, press conferences and other mass information campaigns.

The Corona virus already far outstrips Sars, and the death toll of the novel coronavirus recently surpassed that of Sars.

Popularly known as the Salone Messenger, Sallu Kamuskay was 21 years old in 2014 when he volunteered to work at the Ebola Treatment Center at Hastings, in the outskirts of Freetown. “I did so because I realized that the virus was killing mostly young people, including my best friend, Abdulai, and I wanted to help put a halt to that,” he said.

Sallu was not a health practitioner, and looking back, he said it was a very tough experience for him sacrificing his time working at the treatment centre. The good news for him, though was noticing that many patients recovered.

His fear? “I’m afraid that the coronavirus may come to Sierra Leone, and I am scared. That is why I have been using my Facebook page to call on the government to act now. I am glad a ban has been placed on large gatherings. “For now, we pray for it not to come as we do not even have the facilities to fight this war.”

While the country is on tenterhooks, an article co-authored by renowned Sierra Leonean biostatistician/epidemiologist, Dr Osman A Sankoh (Mallam O), Dr Stephen Sevalie, Dr Mohamed Boie-Jalloh and Dr Mohamed G Sesay, states: “There are three clear problems that might be highlighted in this present ongoing pandemic. First, the virus is new, and we are not sure about its potentials leading to panic reactions. Second, is the economic disruption hitting local economies and the global market. And third, the health systems not ready to deal with a large-scale pandemic; and surge in demand for health services that the government must pay for.” Is this not familiar Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea?

Sierra Leone’s president, Maada Bio has issued statements and seem to be taking actions to calm the nerves.

In February 2016, I met Dr Sankoh at a Workshop on Ebola preparedness in the Ghanaian capital, Accra that his organization, INDEPTH Network had convened with its partners. Seventy stakeholders and decision-makers from 22 countries, including Sierra Leone and Liberia, attended. Among their objectives, according to the INDEPTH Network website was: “opportunity to discuss preparedness planning to improve early detection and effective response to Ebola virus disease in their country.”

Dr Sankoh is now the Statistician-General of Sierra Leone. With experience from such a workshop as a bonus, one would invariably think he should be sitting at the head of the table in helping to place a handle on a potential catastrophe.

The good news is President Bio, and his Liberian counterpart, George Weah and the Guinean authorities have all issued statements and seem to be taking actions to calm the nerves. We have been down this road before, but people are genuinely worried that like Ebola, lives will be lost. With the spike in Europe, China and America, the rest of the world may be too busy addressing the issue in their backyards than come to the rescue of West Africa like they did for Ebola.

While praises have been showered on President Bio for inviting to State House members of the past administration to help share ideas on how to tackle the coronavirus, videos uploaded on social media hours later of the quarantine facility at the airport for passengers returning from countries already affected once again expose the country’s unpreparedness, despite its good intentions. For almost six hours, complaints are that there were no health officials to talk to them, take their temperatures or even tell them what to do, let alone get them food. “The facility was too poor, and we are being exposed to the virus,” a lady was heard speaking in one of the videos that have gone viral.

In a previous post on Facebook, I suggested the need for a Coronavirus Czar to help coordinate efforts and free up the Ministry of Health to concentrate on other priorities. Such an office may have had the foresight to cross-check and ensure that the Lungi Airport Hotel was ready to serve the intended purpose.

On the Economy

Even without any Coronavirus case, the impact is already being felt on the economy. Wilbourne Showers, an economist, says our economy is already going through challenges. “It is largely dependent on importation even for basic foodstuff like our staple, rice that comes from China,” he said. He believes that containers arriving at the port have dwindled, “and import taxes will reduce significantly this quarter.”

This interactive map provided by Johns Hopkins shows you where every reported coronavirus case in the world is located and how many people have died. (Source: Johns Hopkins)

He also points at the potential hit it may have on our hotel and tourism and mining industries as well as on remittances and inflation. He fears that jobs will be lost, and the government may not be able to accrue taxes from these sources. “This is already a struggling economy where jobs are non- existent, and there is little private sector activity. Everything comes from the public sector—from the government. The last time around, we have the West to come to our aid, and this time, we probably have ourselves to curb a potential threat. If only we wash our hands thoroughly with soap, apply social distancing, check our temperature and immediately report when we begin to feel sick, then lives may be saved. We have been down this path before.

Osman Benk Sankoh worked with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and was Head of Community Outreach Unit, Public Information Section during the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014.

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