Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

Lockdown welcomed in Ebola-weary Sierra Leone

Many in Freetown suburb already know Ebola-prevention guidelines but applaud continued efforts to eradicate the virus

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Alima Jallo Jamboria walks along a bumpy dirt road into the community of Red Pump, a suburb of Freetown. Aside from her and other volunteers the streets are empty, residents sequestered inside during a three-day lockdown aimed at stamping out Ebola.

Jamboria and her three team members are among 25,000 volunteers going door-to-door to raise awareness about Ebola prevention as part of the “zero Ebola” campaign. Nearly 4,000 Sierra Leoneans have died from the hemorrhagic fever, which has killed more than 10,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The volunteers are also looking for sick people and if found, encourage families to call 117, the emergency hotline for Ebola.

Six million people are affected by the shutdown, which ends Sunday night, but were allowed out for Friday prayers at mosques and church services on Sunday morning.

Momoh Thoronka and his daughter.
Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

“We are only doing this because we want to save our people — we cannot continue dying,” said Jamboria. She added that because the country’s schools have been closed since July 2014, many girls are getting pregnant, and many children are so behind they may not be able to catch up. The schools were scheduled to reopen on March 30, but were delayed due to a recent uptick in the spread of the virus.

According to WHO, the week up to Feb. 1 saw 80 new diagnoses in Sierra Leone, up from 65 the previous week. Guinea saw an increase from 30 to 39, and Liberia from four to five cases over the same time period.

Sierra Leone’s schools are now scheduled to reopen on April 14.

This is the country’s second major country shutdown aiming at stemming the spread of the virus. The first was in September, also lasting three days.

Sierra Leone is aiming for the ambitious goal of zero Ebola cases by mid-April. And although the number of new cases has decreased significantly since the peak out of the outbreak, people must still be cautious, said WHO’s Freetown spokeswoman Winnie Romeril.

Romeril said there has been significant improvement since surveys last September showed many people had little understanding of how to protect themselves against Ebola, which spreads through bodily fluids.

“Today most everyone in Sierra Leone knows about Ebola. Secondly, there were many more cases per day back then than there are now. In September, every day we saw 20 or more cases of Ebola. It was even worse by November when it wasn't uncommon to have 60 cases in a single day,” said Romeril. 

“Today, you can often count on the fingers of one hand the number of cases of Ebola diagnosed each day in Sierra Leone. And those cases are coming from very specific villages and neighborhoods. We really are on the cusp of ending this in Sierra Leone if people will just step up their compliance to the safety measures and cooperate with the contact tracers.”

Romeril added that during the first lockdown a large number of families were caring for sick relatives at home due to misinformation about the virus and fear of the motives of authorities and Western health organizations. One team even found a dead child hidden underneath a bed.

There are now clinics and staff to care for the sick and professional burial teams to conduct safe burials. But still, last week at least six people in three districts died of Ebola in their homes, according to Romeril.

On Friday, the first day of the campaign, volunteers explained to people about the importance of getting help if you are sick, including early symptoms like vomiting and fever. Some came forward for treatment. In western Sierra Leone, which is currently a hot spot for the virus, alerts to the 117 emergency response increased 98 percent Friday, according to Yvonne Aki- Sawyerr, director of planning with the National Ebola Response Center.

The lockdown seems to have gone smoothly for the most part, although according to Reuters there was an incident in the east where police fired tear gas after a crowd started fighting over food distribution.

In the community of Red Pump, however, many people were in support of the effort to stamp out the virus — even if that meant staying home for three days.

Maseray Thoronka with her husband and two of their children.
Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

Momoh Thoronka said he knew about proper Ebola precautions, but thought another lockdown was necessary anyway.

“We saw the previous lockdown — there’s a big difference. This time around we are hoping for the best, of course, to minimize the spread of Ebola virus,” he said.

He lives in a house with about 29 other people. He admitted it’s overcrowded and a prime candidate for the virus to spread because of the close body contact, but insisted they are being careful.

“We are taking necessary precautions,” said Thoronka. “I work in a hospital, so I give my family chlorine [to wash their hands] and show them what to do.”

One woman named Maseray Thoronka, no relation to Momoh, also said she already knew the advice the volunteers gave her, but added, “It is good to reinforce. People here are listening to the advice, but I’m still worried as Ebola is still in this country.”

Thoronka has four kids, and she and her husband sell coal to make a living. The three-day shutdown will affect her business, she said, but she’s so anxious for the outbreak to end that she’s not complaining about the loss.

“We are having too much suffering in this country — we need this Ebola out,” she said.

And that is the whole point — to repeat what most already know about Ebola, said Roeland Monasch of UNICEF, another partner, working with the government on the “zero Ebola” campaign.

“This time most people know about Ebola, but what we need to do is recognize we are not there yet,” he said. “The whole country needs to be Ebola free.”

He also said it’s important to have more women engaged in spreading awareness. The campaign made sure to have at least one woman per team doing the door-to-door work. A program was also started to encourage women who sell food items at local markets to explain Ebola prevention to their customers.

“They have the best sales pitch, they are really very vocal and eloquent in selling their goods,” he said. “But now they are not only selling their goods but selling the message of Ebola.”

And although there’s clearly still work to be done, there’s also a sense of hope, said volunteer Hannah Konteh.

“We tend to deny a lot and that’s the problem, many haven’t seen a patient with Ebola — even with HIV, it was the same thing, because they didn’t see an HIV patient, they didn’t think it was real. But we will beat this thing once and for all.”

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