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Perception and reality: Ebola in Sierra Leone

World Vision
5 February 2015 by Alison Schafer
Perception and reality: Ebola in Sierra Leone

People in Sierra Leone have been diligent with measures to stop the spread of Ebola - like washing their hands regularly. Photo by Jonathan Bundu, World Vision

As a specialist in mental health and psychological support, my work for World Vision has taken me to many diverse communities all over the globe. Usually I’m called in to help when a population has suffered a natural disaster or conflict. The children I meet have often lost close family members and suffered the psychological wounds created by the destruction of their homes, sense of stability and almost everything that was familiar in their environment.

Invariably, when I arrive in a place affected by disaster the situation I find on the ground is very different from how it is presented back home.

The reports that reach the international media will always highlight the destruction and chaos that ensues in the wake of a disaster or conflict. But in reality, life goes on, even in the worst circumstances. And there’s always stories of great hope and courage, that often go unnoticed amongst the devastating scenes showed in the news.

Nowhere has the contrast between reality and international perception been more stark than in Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the cities worst hit by the recent Ebola outbreak. Before I arrived here, I was seeing an impression delivered by the media that Ebola is as easy to catch as the common cold, that even venturing into the streets of Freetown would immediately put you at risk of catching the deadly disease.

In fact, the Ebola virus is not airborne, which makes it much less contagious than people imagine. The only way to catch the virus is by coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is in the active stages of the disease. This is why the health workers like nurses and close family members are at a much higher risk of contracting the disease, and why health workers are wearing special plastic suits, which cover their bodies from head to toe – a scene that frequently appeared in the news.

The bodies of those who have died from the disease are also highly contagious, so the burial teams run by World Vision, wear protective gear too.

But there is no reason for anyone else who works for World Vision or anyone in the general public in Sierra Leone to do so. What happens in the treatment centres is not the same as what happens in the street.

Before I came I was expecting to be almost unable to function because the danger of infection would be so great. But it’s not like that. Of course, I need to take steps like regular hand washing, not sharing food and so forth – but those are measures I would take anywhere I travelled in the world.

People in Freetown are taking precautions seriously. I find my temperature being taken every time I return to the hotel and any time I enter a public building. An elevated temperature is one of the first signs of the disease, so people are respecting that and doing their part to halt the spread of the disease.

As well, it’s important to put the scale of the crisis in perspective, and be guided by facts not paranoia. The latest reported figures show that 3,083 people have died of Ebola in Sierra Leone. This is a very large number of people and it’s understandable why so many cases have overwhelmed an already fragile health system. But out of a total population of some six million people, we must recognize that there are many families here who will not know of anyone who has contracted the disease.

The risk to the population here was so much greater than it would have been in more developed countries because they simply did not have adequate laboratory facilities, treatment centres or even enough fuel for their ambulances. It was not until the international community sent in significant resources in October and November that the course of the outbreak began to change.

I do worry that those who have come to help will leave soon and the long term process of recovery will be neglected. Many Sierra Leoneans have not been touched by Ebola directly, but the indirect affects of closed schools, overwhelmed health facilities and a declining economy are being felt by nearly everyone. The economic effect of markets, hotels and restaurants being closed for months has seen many people laid off and may struggle to get back to their pre-Ebola status.

Many schools in Sierra Leone were closed to limit the risk of exposing children to the Ebola virus, so World Vision has run an ‘Education in Emergencies’ radio teaching program, to keep kids like Rugiatu up to date with their education.

Many schools in Sierra Leone were closed to limit the risk of exposing children to the Ebola virus, so World Vision has run an ‘Education in Emergencies’ radio teaching program, to keep kids like Rugiatu up to date with their education.

I hope we can now begin to concentrate on the real dangers to the population here and spend less time worrying about dangers to ourselves. For me, this is where my focus is. It’s about how we are now going to help children, their families and communities begin to recover from their losses – both of loved ones, possessions, financial resources, education – and tap into their resilience to bounce back.

The mental well-being of people will be critical to support in the coming six months. We need to ensure families have the chance to grieve for those that have died, or other tangible losses they may have experienced. For some children who are now without one or both parents to care for them, we must ensure they receive the love and care they will need and well into the future.

We’ll have to ensure teachers are trained to provide support to children when they re-enter school and help them to ‘catch up’ on so much lost time. The recovery is where my role really takes off here in Sierra Leone. Thankfully with the right support, I have every confidence we can deliver what the children and their families need.

You can support World Vision’s work to stop the spread of Ebola and help communities recover through the Ebola Outbreak Appeal.

Article by Alison Schafer with Sarah Wilson, Freetown, Sierra Leone

Alison Schafer

Alison is a Senior Program Advisor for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in World Vision's Humanitarian Emergency Affairs Team.


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