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…and the monstrous Ebola was confirmed today 2 years ago

By Umaru Fofana Today - 25 May - is the date that is remembered in Sierra Leone perhaps more for the military coup of 1997 and the deadly Ebola virus of 2014, than it is for the very significant Africa Liberation Day that it also is. Major Johnny Paul Koroma, whereabouts uncertain, would be freed from prison 19 years ago as he faced treason charges and made a junta leader. Victoria Yillia would innocently go to a health centre to save her foetus but would instead later become the first confirmed Ebola patient in Sierra Leone despite the virus having apparently killed scores of people already. She would lose her unborn child. While grappling with that loss, many members of her family would succumb to the virus and the entire nation would be on tenterhooks. Thousands more would later be lost to the disease. But like with many tragedies that have befallen this nation, the lessons seem to be being allowed to erase - if not deliberately erased. For the sake of this article, I will forget about the monstrosity of the military junta. Victoria was young - around 21 years - and married to a young college student, Anthony, who was not much older. She was pregnant and looked forward to having her first child. And her husband’s first, too. He had left her in Koindu in the eastern Kailahun District to attend college in Kenema. Soon she would have pregnancy-related complications. The poorly-equipped Koindu health centre and its ill-prepared-for-Ebola staff were her natural port of call. Koindu is almost literally just a stone’s throw from neighbouring Guinea where Ebola had been wreaking havoc for several months. A sign of how the authorities in Sierra Leone had let down the nation, despite assurances that surveillance was on and the country was preparing should the virus cross the borders, the health workers on what was the natural frontline did not even have gloves, nor were they trained to cope with the ineluctable arrival of Ebola. Because the health workers were not supplied with the most basic tools and gear they needed to work, Victoria was cross-infected with Ebola by the midwife who had unsuspectingly been infected by the many pregnant women she was tending to. Victoria did not know until after her discharge from the health centre. Her seamless bleeding at home hours later meant she had to return to hospital - referred to Kailahun town instead. Her college student husband insisted that she be sent to Kenema instead where things were somehow better. Or so it had bene hoped. 19 May 2014, Victoria arrived at the Kenema Government Hospital. She was taken to the maternity ward amid the ceaseless bleeding made worse by the fact that she had to sit on a motorbike for hours on some of the bumpiest roads in the country. In Kenema there was no sign of a country prepared for Ebola despite all the signs of when and not if it would come. On the 20 May she was tested for Lassa Fever. Negative. Lassa fever test repeated on the 21 May. Negative. Again on the 22 May. Negative, again. Any country which was remotely prepared for Ebola which was just next door would have first subjected such a patient to an Ebola test. And all this while the nurses had no gear to respond to any such patient. In the end on the 23/24 May she was tested for Ebola. Positive. That was confirmed on the 25 May. hence the anniversary today. The 2014 Ebola outbreak became the worst health crisis the world has witnessed in recent times. It engulfed three countries in West Africa - Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia - killing over 11,000 people. Those figures are only official. Hundreds more, probably thousands, had died in the three affected countries before the counting started. And when that counting did start, in the case of Sierra Leone, we still have over 1,000 confirmed cases still unaccounted for. Not part of the survivors, nor part of the dead. Ebola crossed the border from Guinea into Senegal, where it was stopped in its track. That was a country ready and prepared for it and had not just been talking and lying. But actually doing something. A handful died in Mali and Nigeria, but it was quickly contained there too. Like Guinea and Liberia, Sierra Leone became synonymous with the small but deadly virus, spreading paranoia and panic around the world. While many countries imposed restrictions on travellers, the affected countries saw their already dysfunctional health systems decimated by the deaths of hundreds of health care workers. As I write today, monies the state promised their families have still not been paid. AsI write many of those who volunteered as nurses - many of them trained and qualified - and were promised an absorption into the health sector are still jobless. Ebola is gone, they have been forgotten. Some even stigmatised. How ungrateful! Two years on I still have vivid images of the suffering and deaths I witnessed throughout the crisis, as a journalist on whom many around the world relied to tell the hitherto seemingly unending story of Ebola. At the aptly named Devil Hole just outside Freetown a corpse lay beside the main highway. The deceased was supposed to have been around 50 years old. His body had been dumped by an angry, petrified group of young people in a rundown suburb where utilities don’t exist and poverty is the norm. Ignorance, too. While he lay dead, across the highway his wife lay dying, semi-naked, under a mango tree. Well into the outbreak by now and with every district having to grapple with it, days of telephone calls to the toll-free number of 117 did not being any help. No one came for the dying woman. Days without a response - several hours after I had seen her and put calls though myself - she died, of Ebola. Another couple was also caving in to the disease. Days of calls to 117 did not help. Youths barricaded them to stop them from escaping and spreading the virus they suspected was Ebola. No response. The woman died. Youths were panic-stricken. They fled. The husband ran away. Only God knows how many more people he ended up infecting, before apparently he also died. This is an area that Ebola engulfed. A few hundred metres away, at John Thorpe village, Ebola killed over 100 in just about a month. Devil Hole is a whisker away from the capital and the Sierra Leonean-run Ebola Treatment Unit at Hastings. It’s also not far from the well-equipped, British-built and British-run Kerry Town Treatment Centre. But no one came to Devil Hole, it was a devil’s hole. But so were many other places where the people were let down by their leaders. Leaders who should have been there for them but were not there, certainly not on time. Even if they would later claim credit for ending the outbreak. Next week I will look at how and when the world came, what they did and of what significance. See you then. (C) Politico 25/05/16