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The Church in Sierra Leone: Navigating the Ebola Crisis
Locator: Freetown, Sierra Leone
VO: This is like a measly band aid on an open wound. This roll of plastic fencing serves as a very feeble fortress against Ebola. When the fencing runs out, health officials in Freetown, Sierra Leone simply use string to distinguish residents who are free to move about the capital city from those who are not.
A few days ago, a boat from a northern village washed ashore, landing on the beach of this fish market. One man on board was already dead from Ebola and the handful of others with him appeared to be infected with the disease.
Man: We start on Monday…
VO: The market is where these men work. They are among hundreds who have been quarantined since that toxic vessel arrived. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Monitored daily, they show no signs of the virus - but it is taking it is toll on them.
Abass Bangura: I’m not feeling good because I usually go out with my friends, no. But when I’m here I’m feeling so lonely.
Joseph Bangura: My liberty is very blocked for the moment. For 21 days- I will stay here for 21 days.
Woman: This is one of the survivors from Ebola.
VO: When Ebola first appeared in Sierra Leone in May 2014, most people here had never heard of the disease. Now, despite lingering outbreaks, the country seems to be moving toward containment.
Bishop John Yambasu, Sierra Leone Conference: Ebola brought a lot of evil upon this nation in terms of human loss, in terms of economic loss but I think that it opened our eyes to realities. What we thought we were, Ebola told us we are not. We had to depend on international community to come and unravel what this Ebola is all about. And when we got sick we had no idea what to do with them.
Jan Snider: A year and a half ago, what did you know about Ebola?
Palo Conteh: Nothing, nothing absolutely.
VO: Palo Conteh heads the government response. He admits the outbreak hit them quick and hit them hard.
Palo Conteh, CEO Ebola Response, Sierra Leone: We did not have the facilities, we did not have the expertise, we did not have the functional beds. We did not have the labs. It is the first time in the history of Ebola for Ebola to enter a densely populated Urban area – capital cities, Monrovia, Freetown, Conakry. It has never happened.
VO: The reality is evident here. This is just one of many Ebola cemeteries across the country. Over 3,000 victims were hastily buried in an effort to prevent further contamination by the highly contagious virus. Most of the earthen graves are simply marked with numbered pickets. It is a glaring reminder of what Ebola has stolen from this nation.
Sound: car going over road
VO: It all began in the far corner of the country in a village sandwiched between Liberia and Guinea.
Koindu has seen its share of devastation. Over two decades ago, it was the flashpoint for a ruthless civil war and it still shows the scars. It was here where Ebola entered Sierra Leone from Guinea. Villagers first thought it was caused by an evil spirit.
Chief Tamba Korfeh: It was a devil in the form of a snake and it was causing the havoc.
VO: The havoc is far-reaching. As the virus saturated this West African nation, its frail infrastructure began to crumble. Hospitals were not equipped to respond. Schools were shuttered. The economy ground to a halt. Although, there are a few elite who thrived - taking advantage of emergency resources pouring into the country.
In fact, even before the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone ranked fourth in the world for having the largest gap between the wealthy and impoverished. But when aid poured into the country – some say disparity got even worse.
Most of major donors have strong financial oversight in place but citizens point to extravagant mansions on the outskirts of Freetown and claim that “Ebola money” is funding a recent building boom. United Methodist lay leader, Jaka Lappia says people are angry and feel cheated.
Jaka Lappia, Lay Leader Kercher United Methodist Church, Kenema: They see a few guys with these good jeeps, good care and yet you see the bulk of some other people out there – they can’t afford a day’s meal. Look at the gap- so big, between the haves and have nots. That is creating a big, big resentment- a big problem.
VO: While there is brewing anger over the government’s initial response and obvious inequities, Ebola numbers are subsiding. Some check points are still in-force.
But general restrictions on movement have lifted. There’s an almost premature sense of relief.
Jan Snider, United Methodist News Service: As we move around Freetown with a population of well over a million, it’s clear that the army of Ebola responders has another battle on their hands: complacency. As the number of cases drops people become more confident but they are weary and they are relaxing their behavior.
VO: Hand washing stations are often ignored and people are moving about in crowds. The country is anxious to become a post-Ebola society.
Sound: Church music
VO: Through everything, The United Methodist Church has remained a trusted leader. Bishop John Yambasu was the first faith leader to call for a national health emergency when Ebola first emerged. He leads the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, which trained hundreds of faith leaders to vigorously respond to the outbreak. It was through the church’s leadership that pressure was put on the government to perform safe and dignified burials. Even during the worst of it, the church kept open six of its health facilities. When quarantines last for months on end, church members delivered food to starving families. And, these United Methodists went the extra mile to serve rural areas, where most live.
Yambasu: They are beyond where the road ends, where vehicles cannot go. So you have to walk on footpath. You have to cross rivers. You have to climb mountains and go through valleys.
VO: The Sierra Leone Annual Conference has a two-year post Ebola recovery plan that addresses the myriad of deficiencies exposed by this emergency. On the top of the list is upgrading and reopening all its health facilities. But, society has experience unprecedented devastation on every level so, the church will first address the many immediate needs and look to the larger church to join in the long term recovery.
Yambasu: It’s restorative justice. Go to them, even without telling them that God cares for you by just carrying food and saying nothing is a whole gospel. A whole sermon. And then we move beyond that and to sit and to say, ‘What can we do together?” We have a lot to give to this country.