Sierra Leone, a nation of six million people in West Africa, is just starting to come out of a severe Ebola outbreak. This deadly virus caused the death of thousands of people. It is important that the international community not forget what we went through in West Africa, and what lessons to learn so as to never allow a repetition.
At the height of the outbreak from October to December (2014) the epidemic was out of control. The situation for several reasons was starting to look hopeless. A nightmare was unfolding before our very eyes! Those of us who were living through this terror at Ebola ground zero were bracing ourselves for the worst.
Some of us knew well that the medical institutions and personnel on the ground had been caught by total surprise and hence thoroughly unprepared to handle a catastrophe of such deadly magnitude. We also knew that even in normal circumstances the medical infrastructure of this poor nation was seriously stretched and inadequate. But, more strikingly was the slowness by which international medical assistance was trickling in. As a Greek Orthodox missionary working in Sierra Leone this was personally very surprising, very disappointing and even shocking. I was certain that the international community would jump in to help us. Indeed the World Health Organization has admitted that it underestimated the potential severity of the outbreak. Hence it did not send alarm bells ringing on time. That means very valuable time was lost and the epidemic kept spreading and people in Sierra Leone kept dying.
The consequences were devastating. For a while at the height of the crisis many nurses had abandoned their clinics and hospitals after a series of Ebola fatalities had struck the medical profession. Many doctors refused to see patients. General surgery was kept to a drastic minimum. So we were left to our own devices to survive as best we can -- no shaking hands, no hugging, washing hands in chlorinated water or disinfectant gels, wearing plastic gloves and daily temperature checks. This became a daily routine for months. Any disease or ailment no matter how minor could prove fatal due to the minimal medical services that were available. Any death was suspected to be a result of Ebola. Women who entered hospital to deliver children might be left unattended because the nurses were simply too afraid to assist in the delivery. Some died trying to give birth on their own.
Eventually the international community began to respond. The government introduced all kinds of quarantine, curfew and lockdown measures. Public sport or entertainment events were banned. Schools and Colleges were shut down. All funerals were regulated and monitored. NGOs and Church organizations (including our Mission) also stepped in providing food supplies, education, protective gear and counseling.
Most importantly, the people themselves began to understand that that Ebola was real. The latter realization changed certain high-risk traditional habits and customs. People now knew that if you wash the body of a dead relative you may become contaminated. If you eat bush meat (bat, monkey, etc.) you are at risk of contamination. Even hand shaking and hugging began to disappear. Naturally the Ebola epidemic began to diminish so that by February (2015) it had reached single digit levels of contamination. Schools are now scheduled to re-open at the end of March.
What lessons did we learn from our harrowing experience? What advice can we now give? The main message is this: Ebola is a terrible disease without any cure. It is time for international medical researchers to focus full speed ahead on a cure. We can no longer say that it is simply a regional phenomenon. Because of the scope of modern transportation the earth has truly become a global village. Ebola does not respect territorial boundaries. It can become a global threat.
Furthermore we need to learn something else. Wherever this virus rears its ugly head it is imperative that the international medical community intervenes in full alert mode. It is no longer possible to say this is not our problem! Sierra Leone must also draw an important lesson. In the future it must not always imagine that in a crisis the international community will always intervene. Consequently it is imperative that it reconstruct and modernize its medical system. As best as possible it needs to meet its medical system challenge head on as a top priority.
Finally now that we are entering into a post-Ebola phase when the international media attention will fade away, Sierra Leone will be left to pick up the pieces. A shattered economy, thousands of homeless Ebola orphans, children and students left without formal education for nearly an entire academic year. More than ever it is time now for international organizations to assist a nation reconstructing from a recent civil war and now hit again by the Ebola war.
Having lived in Sierra Leone for six years, I am constantly amazed and admire the resilience and Spartan endurance of the people -- a virtue sadly lacking in the richer regions of our planet.