The legacy of Ebola in Sierra Leone – a country at risk?

The 2014 outbreak of Ebola – the worst in history – saw almost 4,000 people killed in Sierra Leone. Those who survived now face medical complications while being shunned by their communities. But some say government promises of support are yet to materialise.

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By Abdul Brima

There are over 4,000 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone, according to the country’s health ministry. Many face stigma and discrimination in their families and communities, and thousands more face ongoing physical and mental health problems. Joint pains, fertility concerns and eye problems, as well as livelihood and other economic issues, are daily ordeals for Ebola survivors, according to research such as that carried out by the International Medical Corps in the middle of the crisis.

In 2016, the UNDP and the Government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs agreed an Annual Work Plan to address these issues.

Sierra Leone’s Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs is Dr. Sylvia Blyden. On launching the project, she noted that “Under the leadership of the UNDP and the Government of Sierra Leone, we’ll have so many success stories out of this project.”

However, the signing of this workplan has not so far changed the predicament of Ebola survivors.

Unisa Abass Bangura is one of them. Among the first people to survive Ebola, Abass lives in an unfinished building in Goderich, west of Freetown. During the early days of the outbreak, Abass volunteered to work as a hygienist in a treatment centre near his community, where he contracted the virus. He remembers what it felt like living with the disease.

“It was one of the greatest fears of my life. I saw infected people dying like animals every day. There were few survivors.”

“Ten or eleven patients would come, and only one would survive. That was how severe things were. Seeing the hopeless situation of others made me think I was going to die,” Abass says.

When Abass was discharged, things were not easy. His family had already burnt most of his personal belongings and documents. “Even my elder brother didn’t come to visit me because he feared that I might infect him. I felt disappointed and very discouraged.”

Though he survived both Ebola and the stigma that followed, Abass now lives with a medical complication called urethra rapture. The condition makes it difficult for him to urinate freely. He explains with tears in his eyes.

“A young man like me now lives with this type of complication that old people at 80 to 90 years get. This is hell for me.”

Abass explains that his family cannot afford the fees for the surgery that will solve his problem. He had asked the government for help on many occasions – but no-one wanted to do so.

 Ebola survivors who have fought off the disease often need to fight stigma and discrimination as well. Image credit: Abdul Brima

“The government once said that Ebola survivors are heroes, but now I live with a rubber where my urine passes and there is no one to help me solve this problem. I told the minister about my condition as a survivor, but he just ignored me. It is very painful to be abandoned in this way after making so many sacrifices to save the lives of others,” says Abass.

But the Minister, Dr Blyden, sees beyond the problem of Abass alone.

“The country has tens of thousands of orphans and children who had lost their primary care givers to Ebola, and the government is overstretched on many other social and economic concerns.”

She adds that one of her first priorities upon assuming office was to set up an Ebola survivors unit in her ministry, a desk manned by survivors to address concerns of other Ebola survivors.

“I envisage a long term relationship with Ebola Survivors.

“I’m fully aware they are not just going to disappear into thin air, although many people think they do, and that we should forget about them.”

The Executive Director of civil society organisation the Center for the Coordination of Youth Activities (CCYA), Ngolo Katta, thinks that the time for political gimmicks is over.

“Ebola survivors faced life threatening experiences. They were exposed to death and many witnessed the deaths of family and other community members. The government should encourage them by addressing their economic and social needs.”

Dr. Blyden says her government is committed to addressing the sufferings of Ebola survivors. “To prove that the government is serious about addressing the challenges of Ebola, the president, with support from partners, has introduced a comprehensive package for Ebola survivors. Under this package, Ebola survivors will have access to free medical, psychosocial and livelihood support,” the minister said.

But Abass is not impressed and thinks more needs to be done. “When we go to the hospital there are no medicines, not even paracetamol. Some of our colleagues are frustrated… and have chosen to self-medicate instead.”

29-year-old Adama Kamara also survived Ebola. Adama lost all her family, including her husband, to the virus in 2014. She says that she no longer has any strength, because of complications arising from the disease.

“My eyes scratch constantly. They run all the time, and my thighs and muscles are always paining me and I cannot walk long distance anymore.”

Like Abass, Adama desperately wants the government to help.

“Economic hardship and the difficulties of survival are making life unbearable for me. I can no longer pay my only surviving child’s school fees, or my own medical bill. The government really needs to help us.”

The growing frustration among the Ebola survivor community means Abass and many others are thinking of action.

“We will definitely strike and protest if the government fails to fulfil its promises,” Abass says strongly.

In 2015, Ebola survivors demonstrated in the Freetown asking government to step up efforts in addressing medical, social and economic problems of all survivors. Will the same happen again?

Ngolo Katta from CCYA thinks the chance of protest will be higher if the government fails to listen to the cries of Ebola survivors.

“Some of these survivors have lost their primary caregivers. Thousands more are orphans who need someone to feed and pay school fees for them. These concerns have not been addressed, and there is frustration and disappointment among the survivor population.”

“We are talking about over 4,000 people who have the capacity to destabilise the country’s peace if nothing is done to address their concerns.”

In Sierra Leone, Ebola survivors are found all over the country, which increases the potential for strike action in one area to spill over to another part of the country. So Ebola survivors need to be treated carefully. The country does not need another reason to worry about its stability.

Abdul Brima is Insight on Conflict’s Local Correspondent in Sierra Leone. A radio producer and presenter on BBC Media Action Sierra Leone, he has worked with rural communities on conflict and development issues in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


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