Sierra Leone is gearing up to be declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization on Saturday, which will mark 42 days since the country discharged its last two known cases. Many are anticipating a weekend of celebration, but with neighboring Guinea having recorded four positive cases in the last two weeks, officials warn that the fight is not yet over.
“Ebola does not go away with a declaration. It goes away by doing what we know works,” Palo Conteh, head of the country’s National Ebola Response Center, told media on Wednesday. “As Guinea continues to record cases, some very close to our borders, we must remain vigilant.“
Sierra Leone had the fourth-worst health care in Africa prior to the outbreak. Officials say years of misguided aid and policy hampered the development of an effective system that could have stopped Ebola before it ever got started.
The virus killed 3,589 Sierra Leoneans in 18 months, including 221 nurses and 11 doctors. Citizens were subjected to quarantines, curfews, travel restrictions and a yearlong ban on public gatherings that forced even those untouched by Ebola into isolation.
The ban was lifted on Aug. 7 and President Ernest Bai Koroma held a lively ceremony a few weeks later when the country’s last known Ebola patient left the hospital. But optimism was quickly stifled after the bodies of two women tested positive for the virus in early September.
Conteh says the government has no “elaborate celebration” planned this time, although the invite-only WHO ceremony will be broadcasted over the radio. Still, communities throughout Freetown are organizing their own events to usher in what they consider to be Sierra Leone’s first step toward international redemption.
“Ebola caused the rest of the world to reject us,” said Eric Bangura, chairman of the Low Cost Housing community youth group in east Freetown. “We couldn’t visit our neighbor countries. Europe and America wouldn’t take us. Being Ebola-free means they will again see us for what we are: good people in a happy country.”
The community plans to kick off a citywide soccer tournament on Sunday to celebrate the country’s first day free of Ebola. Bangura’s youth group has spent the last week renovating the neighborhood sports field, building benches and fencing around the perimeter with long sticks and a few hundred feet of tarp. They’ve even hired a local DJ.
“It will be be better than Christmas,” said Asap Kamara, a local high school student. “We’re finally free. How could you not be happy?”
Of course, not everyone sees the declaration as reason to celebrate. While some plan to take part in the weekend’s festivities, others are solemnly looking to Nov. 7 as a day to reflect on the past and pray for those who were lost.
“All the innocent souls that have gone – this is the time to mourn for them, not to be happy, dancing in the street and making parties,” said Emerson Taylor, an immigration worker whose wife and mother-in-law succumbed to the virus last December. “That day I will just sit down and say prayers for my loved ones. December would have marked me and my wife’s 20th anniversary together, but instead it will mark a year since she was taken from me. We need to be more serious now, to secure ourselves before another outbreak comes into Sierra Leone.”
The National Ebola Response Center is expected to continue operating until Dec.31, when their responsibilities will be shifted to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Office of National Security. But Saturday will bring procedural changes, including the closing of one of the country’s eight Ebola treatment centers and a major shift in burial policy.
Concern Worldwide estimates that 70 percent of cases originated from the handling of a corpse. In order to curb the rapid spread of the virus, the government implemented strict burial policies that required all bodies to be managed as if they were positive for Ebola, regardless of the cause of death. The intervention of hazmat-clad burial workers and the denial of traditional funerals wore on the public’s collective psyche.
Conteh said that because infection rates have reduced so dramatically, the “blanket approach” to burials is no longer necessary. Strict burial procedures will only continue for deaths that are “clearly suspicious” after Nov. 7, although swabbing bodies to test for the virus will continue to be mandatory in all circumstances. There is no word yet on when the national state of emergency will be lifted and the countrywide ban on Sunday trading is still in place.
If all goes well, the country will now enter a 90-day period of heightened surveillance. The WHO won’t officially declare the outbreak over until Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all record 42 consecutive days without a case.
Despite the ongoing struggle in Guinea, Sierra Leoneans remain cautiously optimistic. For some, even miracles can’t be ruled out.
“Ebola disrupted all activities, all walks of life, so I will embrace even my enemies,” said Emerson Ngenda, who is confined to a wheelchair after a lifelong battle with polio. “I’m a disabled person, but on that day I almost feel like I’ll be able to stand up and dance.”