The Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone is busy. Crisis responders from all over the world gather around the luggage carousel. Staff for non-governmental organizations — representing Ireland, Norway, United Kingdom, France, Iceland, China and the United States — are easily identified by their uniforms, luggage tags or dialects. As the many containers of medical supplies and equipment spill onto the conveyor belt, the responders seem prepared to saturate the country with their enthusiastic support, resources, knowledge and skills in an effort to finally contain the Ebola virus.
With the easing of public health restrictions, Sierra Leoneans not only are weary of the virus but also are becoming more complacent in facing this formidable foe. While hand-washing stations are abundant throughout the capital city of Freetown, many simply ignore them. Public buses are packed beyond shoulder to shoulder, and those manning Ebola checkpoints in and out of the city often wave people through without a glance. All these factors allow the virus to maintain a stubborn grip on the health and psyche of a nation.
Even though Liberia was recently declared Ebola-free, the virus is proving to be an unshakable foe in Sierra Leone. It was difficult to tally accurate statistics at the peak of the outbreak, but the World Health Organization reports that nearly 11,000 have died of Ebola in west Africa, and more than 26,000 were infected. Even now, Sierra Leone reports a few cases a day, but more districts than not seem to have broken the transmission chain that originally fueled the outbreak so virulently in the last quarter of 2014. More than 12,000 have contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone and nearly 4,000 have died.
Nobody knew what Ebola was
We were there when Ebola first took hold in Sierra Leone.
At the end of May 2014, a United Methodist News Service team was covering the distribution of 400,000 insecticide treated bed nets through the church’s Imagine No Malaria ministry when we heard that Ebola had made its way to the far corner of the country.
The news team and United Methodist Committee on Relief representatives headed for Kenema Government Hospital to confer with the government health team treating Ebola patients. We wanted to communicate the facts to the many United Methodist Church doctors and nurses who might come into contact with Ebola patients. That was 12 months ago.
Since then, the world has witnessed the devastating effects of Ebola in West Africa. Thousands have died and the fallout has devastated the health, education, and economic sectors of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
From the beginning of the deadly outbreak, United Methodist leaders in West Africa have been on the frontlines. As the virus begins to show signs of retreating, it was time for United Methodist News Service to return to Sierra Leone to investigate how the church might be called upon in the coming years to rebuild all that has been lost during the outbreak.
Despite all the effort that has gone into controlling the epidemic, across the street from the modern hotel that accommodates responders from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, an entire neighborhood endures quarantine. The orange plastic fencing draping the area indicates that for 21 days no one inside the fence can legally leave and their health will be monitored for any sign of the virus.
Joseph Bangura is one of the more than 300 living behind this flimsy barrier. He earns his living at the fish market where a boat arrived a few days ago with a handful of passengers from a northern village. One man on board was already dead from Ebola and the others were whisked away to treatment facilities. Bangura misses his family and has no means of earning a living while quarantined. “I am worried about my family and they are worried about me.”
Over the last year, Bishop John K. Yambasu has witnessed the far-reaching repercussions of Ebola. The United Methodist bishop for Sierra Leone has lost parishioners and pastors to the virus. He has experienced the death of a beloved surgeon, the closing of United Methodist health clinics and schools. And, he has prayed with his countrymen as they struggled to earn a living as society ground to a halt.
“My heart bleeds,” he says, “Ebola broke out in this country and nobody had any idea what it was.”
‘We all came together’
Yambasu steers the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola. Early in the outbreak, he directed training of all faith-based health institutions across the country. Nearly 300 attended the information sessions about the deadly virus.
“We all came together, imams and pastors and trained in the area of basic prevention,” Yambasu says. It was this task force that pressured the government to declare Ebola a national health emergency and put into place more stringent controls.
Throughout the unprecedented outbreak, the church has remained a trusted source of information. With the help of United Methodist Communications, Yambasu and Liberian Bishop John Innis have sent daily text messages of encouragement and information to their pastors.
Early on, the messages helped to amplify the reality of the outbreak and empower faith leaders to guide their congregations through the crisis. Nearly 700 recipients received messages such as, “Ebola is real. It kills with little warning,” and “Don’t fix our eyes on Ebola but on God’s presence…God’s grace is eternal.” The agency also co-produced an award-winning animation, recorded in indigenous languages, to persuade cynics that the virus had become an undeniable reality in the region.
To date, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has poured over $630,000 into the Ebola response in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Côte d’Ivoire, where proximity to the two nations put the country at risk.
“Most of our grants included multiple elements like purchase of medical supplies and feeding people in hospitals,” says Francesco Paganini, the manager of International Response. The mission agency, United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry individually contributed to education and prevention efforts, as well. The United Methodist Women also distributed food to those quarantined and out of work because of Ebola.
On the frontlines in the affected countries, local church leaders organized information campaigns and distributed medical equipment and resources. When large numbers of people were quarantined, the church delivered food and water to help ease the burden of total shutdown.
Yambasu says it was sobering to witness the breakdown of nearly every social system in the country. “Ebola brought a lot of evil upon this nation but it opened our eyes to realities,” he says. When the outbreak first occurred, Sierra Leone had just a handful of ambulances. Yambasu explains that patients suffering from a variety of ailments, such as malaria or even high blood pressure, often were transported in the vehicles with those suffering from Ebola.
Because of the toxic mix, ambulances were regarded as “death wagons.” In Kailahun, an area where whole families were wiped out by the virus, villagers rioted when an ambulance approached to pick up a patient. An influx of new ambulances, a change in procedures and an extensive government campaign is slowly convincing a skeptical society that ambulances are not to be feared.
The recovery plan
The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone is facing tremendous challenges as a result of Ebola and conference leaders have formulated a Post-Ebola Recovery Response Strategic Plan. The two-year plan addresses the resuscitation and enhancement of all forms of outreach – including health, education and agriculture – while addressing demands created by the sheer numbers of Ebola orphans and widows.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The United Methodist Churches in Sierra Leone and Liberia are struggling to recover from the Ebola epidemic. You can donate to the conference relief efforts online through the Advance.
You can also give to the International Disaster Response fund Advance #982450 of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
Read full coverage of Ebola and The United Methodist Church.
The 18-page report underscores the growing number of vulnerable people in an already overstressed country, especially those who have lost parents or spouses and have no means of support. In addition, the document acknowledges that without a functioning health care system, many chronic diseases have been left untreated, which has resulted in even more deaths and disability than are being reported.
Strengthening the efforts to engage everyone from grassroots to governmental levels, the annual conference report emphasizes the urgent need to reopen the four United Methodist health facilities that were closed in the midst of the outbreak. The Sierra Leone Conference operates 10 hospitals and clinics throughout the country. The plan addresses operational vulnerabilities that were exposed because of the Ebola outbreak with the goal of transforming the facilities into a “robust first class health care system.”
In addition to health care, the church operates more than 300 primary schools and 50 secondary schools. The United Methodist University, slated to open in 2016, will inaugurate curricula that will address food security and nutrition, nursing and evangelization.
This recovery plan will serve as a framework for Sierra Leone Partners Conferences in Germany and Norway this month and in the United States in August.
Snider is special projects producer for United Methodist Communications and has reported from Sierra Leone multiple times since 2007.