Most vulnerable in Sierra Leone suffer under Ebola quarantine
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As ordinary Sierra Leoneans navigate government-imposed curfews and quarantined areas in a new reality shaped by the deadly Ebola virus, the country's most vulnerable are getting left behind.
Jonathan Conteh, the president of Vision for the Blind in Freetown, said one of his blind colleagues had asked passers-by for help earlier this week, only to be confronted by a wave of fear that has swept the city.
“Somebody came and said, ‘Oh, my brother, I really don’t want to leave you in the street, but because of the Ebola today, I cannot afford to hold you. So what I will do is, I will hold your shirt and you can keep your balance.’
The passer-by helped Conteh’s colleague by dragging him across the street by his shirt.
“This is just some of the demeaning experiences we go through and are going through now,” Conteh, who is blind himself, told RFI, adding that a blind person always need somebody to help them.
Conteh has told people at the Vision for the Blind centre to get to a hospital as soon as they feel symptoms, because it is likely no one will take them there. “And if nobody touches you, then you’re almost doomed to die.”
Described by Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma earlier this week as “a disease worse than terrorism”, Ebola is spread by physical contact with someone affected by the hemorrhagic fever.
The latest figures from the World Health Organization said 3,091 people had died of confirmed, suspected or probable cases of Ebola. A total of 6,574 cases have been reported.
In Sierra Leone alone, more than 600 people had died and there are over 2,000 confirmed or suspected cases, according to new figures released by the United Nations health agency on Friday.
Health ministries in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have made an effort to educate the public, calling on them to wash their hands and avoid physical contact. But this has caused problems for the most vulnerable.
Conteh said the Vision for the Blind has closed its office in Kenema after the two adjacent buildings were put under quarantine. He worries about the blind there and how they will be able to eat.
Kenema, in the eastern part of the country and the third-largest city, is considered one of the hardest hit areas it has been quarantined since July. One-third of the population in Sierra Leone is affected by the quarantine, including nearly all the 14 districts. Those who are not under quarantine must abide by a strict 9am to 5pm curfew.
Freetown to Kenema with rice
Mambud Samai had to apply for a special pass to drive from Freetown to visit his football players in Kenema on Saturday. Usually during this time of year, Samai, as the founder and coordinator of the Sierra Leone Single Leg Amputee Sports Association, travels to the five teams located in the capital, Bo, Kailan, Makeni and Kenema to hand out new footballs and sports gear to the teams.
This year, he’s using the earmarked equipment fund for bags of rice and books for the players and their families, which he hopes will keep their spirits up.
“Everyone is really frustrated,” says Samai. “Football speaks to the heart of the amputee. It brings them together every week to share their plight, to share their joy. So any time they are together, they forget about their amputations, forget about their trauma.”
The teams were slated to play in the World Amputee Football Federation World Cup in Mexico in November, but Samai fears that the Ebola crisis will prevent them from attending.
“Before we went into the three days of the house-to-house campaign, we gave them [the most vulnerable] rations to cover three days and go beyond the task to cover seven days,” says Monty Jones, advisor to President Koroma in Freetown.
In Kenema, Mohammed Bah, the team’s goalie, says he’s happy to get a bag of rice to feed his family, but he says that Ebola and discrimination against those with disabilities has made life even harder. He’s 25, and lost his hand during the Sierra Leone civil war.
“The government is not doing much for persons with disabilities… Even when this place was quarantined, the persons with disabilities were not catered to,” says Bah.
Presidential adviser Jones doesn’t agree. “We have tried our best to care for these vulnerable groups and we will continue to do that as a government because we believe that Sierra Leone is for everybody and everybody should have equal rights,” he says.
Bah says his sack of rice, Sierra Leone’s food staple, will last a month, but he’s not sure what will happen next.
“With this disease, you can’t go on the street to beg,” says Bah. “You cannot go to work, and we don’t have work, so how do you expect us to live?”