By Rob MacGillivray, Country Director, Sierra Leone
Since the day in May when hundreds of people attended the funeral of a respected traditional healer in eastern Sierra Leone, Ebola has spread to ravage the country.
More than 2,596 cases have been confirmed so far.
Usman: an aid worker endangered
My colleague Usman, who is from Sierra Leone, told me about another funeral: his mother’s.
Two mourners had become ill and died. They had played an active role in the burial. So had Usman’s wife.
It was thought Usman’s mother had died from cardiovascular failure, and the mourners returned to their homes.
This was almost certainly a misdiagnosis.
Although Usman and his family were outwardly well, they could be incubating the deadly disease and were asked to go into voluntary isolation.
In this epidemic, when you need support most of all, cutting yourself off from friends and family is the only way to keep them safe.
We assured Usman that we would provide food to help him and his family through. When he explained that he had no running water, we said we would provide that as well.
Delivering essential supplies to the quarantined
There was no exact address for the house in a densely populated area on the outskirts of Freetown and when we located the house, the pitted track didn’t reach it.
Laden, we clambered to and from the house half-a-dozen times.
Usman was waiting for us on the terrace. He said his boys would help but we both knew we couldn’t let them.
His wife, brother and two sons, 8 and 10, came out. We left the supplies close by, keeping a minimum of two metres away from the family.
It felt more like a bag drop than a gesture of support.
No family can do without water
The government of Sierra Leone has committed to providing water to quarantined families; Usman and his family would have received 92.4 litres.
Yet according to internationally recognised standards, a family of five would need a minimum of 262.5 litres of drinking water over 21 days.
By the time we made our final trip from the car, we had delivered 225 litres of water.
Quarantined families deprived of support
Since the crisis began, more than 8,400 households in Sierra Leone have been individually quarantined, and there are doubtless thousands more to come.
The majority do not have the support we were able to give Usman. And still he and his family were forced to share the local pump with their neighbours to get water to wash with.
Struggling to keep people safe
It could hardly be more difficult for people in Sierra Leone to follow the measures that are crucial if we are to halt the outbreak.
60% of the population live on less than 80p a day. Just 5% of people have piped water to their homes. Many rely partly on rainwater and the dry season, which stretches from November to April, is looming.
No wonder people quarantined in the morning are out buying food or collecting water in the afternoon.
“I’d rather be faced with a bad man with a gun any day”
Added to the practical challenges, the nature of this emergency makes it so hard to contain. The Ebola virus is 1,000 times smaller than a bacterium, yet I’d rather be faced with a bad man with a gun any day.
There are no peace talks with Ebola. There is just a common enemy, preying mercilessly on existing weaknesses such as poor healthcare and lack of water.
Usman and his family have now passed the 21-day incubation period and Usman is back at work. He told me, “A lot of people still do not believe in the disease and that they might be infected.
“They think the government has created it to get money. It’s those, like me, who have family members who’ve been through it, who’ve died, who know it’s real.”