Sierra Leone's 6 million people were ordered to stay home for three days, starting Friday, as the West African nation attempts a final push to rid itself of Ebola, which has caused over 3,000 deaths in the country since the epidemic was declared more than a year ago.
Case numbers in the slums around the capital Freetown, among the hardest-hit areas, have tumbled from a peak of more than 500 per week in December to 33 in the week ending March 22. The lockdown, which includes an exception only for religious services, is meant to encourage preventive action.
"There have been reports of complacency with hand-washing and temperature checks, and this is an opportunity to up the sensitization and to be more proactive looking for cases," John Fleming, Red Cross emergency health coordinator, told Reuters.
Streets around the country were largely empty Friday morning, except for foot patrols of police and soldiers who also manned checkpoints to ensure that only people with authorization, such as members of health teams and journalists, were out.
As with a similar operation last year, thousands of teams will remind people how Ebola is spread and how to prevent it. In regions around Freetown and in the north, where flare-ups persist, teams will also search for Ebola cases.
Ebola has infected nearly 12,000 people in Sierra Leone, more than in any other country, and health officials have resorted to stringent measures to stop the disease. The September shutdown was thought to be the first time since the plague devastated Europe in the Middle Ages that such a dramatic step has been taken.
While recent weeks have seen a steep reduction in infections, 33 new cases were confirmed in Sierra Leone last week, according to the World Health Organization.
Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma vows to do "whatever it takes" to get to zero cases.
Starting Friday at 6 a.m., Sierra Leoneans were asked to stay in their homes until Sunday evening. Markets, shops, restaurants and bars must shut. Muslims will be allowed to attend prayers on Friday, and Christians may go to services on Sunday, the start of Holy Week before Easter.
"We understand that people are tired and want to get back to their normal life, but we're not there yet. It's the final meters in the race," said Roeland Monasch of UNICEF.