Families under quarantine wait – and wait – for the doctor to arrive

Food and security concerns grow among Sierra Leone residents staying put in isolation until they are declared Ebola-free

Daniel Kanu, left, and Fanta Kamara outside a quarantined house in Mashaka, Sierra Leone. She planned to marry her boyfriend, Ali Kanu, Daniel’s brother, before he died of Ebola. She now lives with Daniel, the only surviving member of his family.
Nina Devries

MASHAKA, Sierra Leone — Fanta Kamara had big plans. She was going to marry her boyfriend, Ali Kanu, whom she knew since the age of 5. They had been dating about a year. But everything changed when he got Ebola and died. 

“I miss him very much. I can’t believe he’s gone,” said Kamara, 20, who after Kanu’s death was put under a 21-day quarantine — the standard incubation period for Ebola symptoms like vomiting and a sore throat to appear. 

Kamara was staying with Kanu’s family in Mashaka, about 35 miles east of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Both of Kanu’s parents also died, leaving Kamara and Kanu’s brother, Daniel Kanu, 13, alone, scared and under quarantine. 

Security in Mashaka is a problem, she said, sitting with Daniel Kanu on a bench outside their quarantined house. They’re not permitted to enter the house, so they use a small shack just a few yards away to sleep in and cook. She worries thieves may come at night and ransack the home.

“We have two police officers on duty during the day but no security at night,” she said.

The two officers are there to monitor the area and make sure no one gets too close to the quarantined house. Kamara and Daniel cannot leave the grounds or, as a precaution, enter the house until it has been disinfected.

Kamara said she doesn’t have enough food to last her and Daniel the quarantine period.

These members of two neighboring families were placed under a 42-day quarantine in Waterloo, Sierra Leone. They say no doctor has visited them since their quarantine began.
Nina Devries

“Our food brought to us [is] finished,” she said. “Luckily my mom is close and cooked for us and left our food by our door.”

The Rev. Andrew Catter is a parish priest in Mashaka who has been keeping an eye on Kamara and Kanu. He also visits very remote areas, taking food and water to those who say they are not getting enough. 

Catter said he’s concerned about the lack of security for quarantined homes. In remote areas, he said, some homes have no security at all. According to a 2014 public emergency regulation act, Sierra Leone police and military are to “restrict the movement of persons and vehicles to and from areas declared to be epicenters of the Ebola disease” and conduct regular patrols of quarantined areas.

“Authorities just go and put a placard by the house saying it’s under quarantine and no one should enter,” he said, adding that many in the country are illiterate and won’t even understand what the sign says. According to UNICEF, only 43 percent of Sierra Leone adults can read and write.

Catter believes lax quarantine measures and not enough food may be contributing to the increase in Ebola cases.

In Lunsar, about 80 miles north of Freetown, a family with seven children lost four members to Ebola, including the father. The mother ran away into the bush. A neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, is keeping an eye on the children in the house.

When the fourth person died, the neighbor said he called 117, the emergency response line for Ebola matters such as dead body pickup. It took more than 24 hours to get the body, he said, and the children were still in the house, greatly increasing their risk of infection. “These kids are all by themselves. It will be hard to feed them all the time plus my family,” he said.

Even after the fourth death, the house was never quarantined. No authorities went to check on the children.  

These stories are happening throughout Sierra Leone, according to Solomon Sogbandi, director for Amnesty International in Sierra Leone.

“We know the government is trying, but you need to ensure you provide adequate food [and] water,” he said.

‘We want to see better coordination … to handle quarantined people and homes, to make sure they are provided for, because those in quarantine cannot move around to get basic needs.’

Solomon Sogbandi

director for Sierra Leone, Amnesty International

Sierra Leone has signed the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. According to Article 11 of the covenant, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing. As a signatory, Sierra Leone agrees that everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger. 

“We want to see better coordination from the National Emergency Response Center,” Sogbandi said. “They need to have a main person, even a team, to handle quarantined people and homes, to make sure they are provided for, because those in quarantine cannot move around to get basic needs.”

The World Food Program (WFP) is responsible for providing food to quarantined homes. In October the organization fed more than 30,000 people in quarantine across the country, according to WFP representative Djaounsede Pardon, who is based in Freetown. 

A full month’s ration of 555 grams of food per person per day is provided to quarantined homes even though the quarantine period is for 21 days, said Pardon. The Ministry of Health and Sanitation notifies the WFP which houses need food deliveries.

“We have heard that people are not getting food. We try to verify, but the information is slow sometimes to come to us and we need time to plan, get the packages and truck ready,” Pardon explained. “It takes logistics.”  

Musa Conteh is the social service officer for the Ministry of Social Welfare and Gender and Children’s Affairs for the Port Loko district, which includes Lunsar and Mashaka. He said the ministry sends teams to check on children in quarantined houses and offer counseling. 

“But the situation is overwhelming at times,” Conteh said. “It’s hard to be everywhere. We really need more social workers.”

Kamara and Kanu in the small shack where they sleep and cook while under quarantine.
Nina Devries

More manpower is also needed to address the security situation, said Theo Nicol, deputy minister of information and communications. 

“The number of police to population is very small. It is less than 5,000 police to serve the entire nation,” said Nicol. “The police still have to do security of state. They cannot take all staff to the Ebola fight. So we still have challenges in that direction but the military has also stepped in to help.”

Meanwhile, 1,149 people have died from Ebola in Sierra Leone since the latest outbreak hit the country in May, according to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

As the death toll rises, families in quarantine grow more fearful.

In the district of Waterloo, just outside Freetown, 29 members of two neighboring families were quarantined in a compound for 42 days after someone died in one of their homes. Authorities doubled the quarantine time because another person died during the first quarantine period.

Suliman Koroma, 30, is one of the adults quarantined in the house. He said that since the first quarantine started, no medical officers have come to check on them.

The nongovernmental organization Don Bosco Fambul has an ICC (interim care center) in Lungi, about three hours north of Freetown, for orphans affected by Ebola. They also provide food for children in quarantined homes who are not getting enough to eat. Brother Lothar Wagner, director of Don Bosco, wants to bring the children in the Waterloo compound to his center but must wait until a doctor confirms they are Ebola-free.

“We want to help, but the quarantine method is not working,” Wagner said. “I want the ICC full. Things are just moving slow.”

Meanwhile, Koroma and his family and neighbors are growing more discouraged waiting for the doctor to arrive.

“How can you quarantine people and have no doctor come to visit? “ he said. “I think they want us to die here.”

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