A year ago most of the world had never heard of Ebola. It has now. This deadly virus, first detected in a village along the Ebola river in the Congo in 1976, has now devastated this part of West Africa and even spread its tentacles to Britain and elsewhere.
I visit Sierra Leone regularly ever since the late 1990s when I was serving as the British High Commissioner at the height of the 11-year rebel war, infamous for the scale of its awful atrocities. During my previous visit in April last year the first deaths from Ebola had been reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Only the international medical aid organisation MSF (Médicins Sans Frontières) was warning of the seriousness of the outbreak; but no one was heeding the warnings, neither the local governments nor the international community. Since then Ebola has affected nearly 22,000 people and resulted in over 8,600 deaths. Sierra Leone has been the worst affected country with over 10,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths.
I arrived in Sierra Leone this time when Christmas and New Year had in effect been cancelled and the virus was still rampaging. The ‘ABC’ public warning slogan (Avoid Body Contact) meant that people were not allowed to gather in groups, trading and public activities were restricted, all schools and many businesses were closed, affected areas were quarantined.
During the rebel war one was accustomed to seeing young men and women going around carrying guns. Now the AK47s have been replaced by ‘temperature guns’ which fire laser beams at you to give temperature readings. One of the early signs of Ebola is high fever, although, of course, the readings cannot distinguish Ebola fever from malaria or all the other numerous prevalent ailments which can lead to high temperatures. Such checks are carried out by teams of voluntary workers at improvised road blocks or as one enters buildings such as hotels, restaurants, banks and offices.
In this war the frontline troops are the doctors and health care workers. Alongwith nearly 150 heathcare workers, Sierra Leone has lost 12 of its doctors to Ebola, virtually 10 per cent of its complement for the total population of 6 million. Also in the frontline are the burial teams. The virus is at its most contagious state in dead bodies and it has proved most difficult to persuade people to stop the traditional practice of touching and washing dead bodies.
After a slow start the UK leads the international assistance in combatting the virus and the British effort, led by dozens of dedicated voluntary doctors and nurses, has made and continues to make a big difference. Ebola treatment centres have been set up all around the country, including those built by teams of British military. The British government has committed around £350m, matched by similar amounts from other governments and international agencies.
This concerted effort is finally bearing fruit. There is a cautious optimism that the tide has at last turned in Sierra Leone. Since my arrival numbers have dropped dramatically. New cases are reported more speedily and get treated more quickly There are more survivors and most victims are now buried more safely. Some areas of the country are now ‘Ebola free’. President Koroma is predicting new cases will drop to zero by the end of March. There are plans to re-open the schools although this should not be rushed.
But what happens after Ebola? The threat will remain but the last Ebola death will leave behind a devastated country, just as we experienced after the rebel war. It took years to recover from that but progress was being made. At the start of 2014 GDP was growing at 14 per cent, one of the highest in Africa. It is now estimated at four per cent, and this may be optimistic.
It is not just the health sector which has been destroyed – the whole economy and sectors of the country’s development, such as education, employment and agriculture, have been ravaged. Sierra Leone was, and potentially always will be, a rich country, the mainstay of which is its agriculture – a country which could easily feed itself and export crops. Now experts are predicting food shortages because many farmers have been unable to plant their crops.
One hopes that when Sierra Leone is Ebola free, the world will not think the job is done. It may be then that the most help will be needed to get this beautiful country back on its feet.
Peter Penfold is a former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone and patron of the UK Association for Schools for the Blind in Sierra Leone, The Dorothy Springer Trust and The Hasting Friendship Link.