How Ebola changed a country

Updated - December 02, 2016 12:24 am IST

Published - December 02, 2016 12:15 am IST

File photo of a healthcare worker dons a protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment Centre in Sierra Leone.

File photo of a healthcare worker dons a protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment Centre in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone has traipsed through a long wanton war that devoured tens of thousands of lives, and bloodied its lush, deep-sea landscape. During the war (1991-2002), a large number of children were recruited as soldiers. I had interviewed over 70 of them in 2011. Some had reintegrated well economically; however, many continued to face economic hardships. Most were accepted by their families and communities. But the traumatic experiences during the war had huge negative repercussions on their mental health. Akim, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, told me: “Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels mixed my food with drugs. With coke in my head I don’t know how many people I killed. I burned villages, children, everybody. Later I became a commander and gave orders to kill enemies.”

Over a decade after the war ended, as Sierra Leone was still emerging from the devastating legacy of the conflict, it was struck along with some other neighbouring countries by a deadly epidemic called Ebola in 2014. The disease killed thousands in West Africa. Schools were closed for eight months and public gatherings banned. The crisis in the country was declared over in November 2015. One year on, Sierra Leone continues to deal with Ebola’s devastating impact on its people and the economy.

When comparing Ebola with war, Robert M. Kamara, who works with children in Freetown, Sierra Leone, said, “Ebola was worse, even a family member could not come close or touch the Ebola-affected or the bodies of those who died from the disease due to the possibility of contracting the virus.” In 2014, World Health Organisation (WHO) officials noted that traditional burial practices were among the hurdles that were making it difficult to control Ebola. Burial practices in Sierra Leone entail washing the bodies of the loved ones. It was an uphill task for relief workers to convince families to allow trained specialists to safely bury Ebola victims.

Impact on the young

One lasting legacy of Ebola, like the war in Sierra Leone, will be its impact on the young. Due to the virus, thousands of children were orphaned. Many of them are now compelled to fend for their younger siblings and have not been able to return to school. Philip Sesay, a graphic designer from Freetown, said, “The communal responsibility for children in Sierra Leone has declined and extended families have been resistant to support orphans who lost their parents due to Ebola, out of fear of being contaminated or stigmatised by the community.”

Further, the closure of schools during the outbreak has had a huge impact on the education of children. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology had commissioned an Emergency Radio Education Programme with support from UNICEF and other partners. Its daily programming was based on the primary and secondary school curricula in core academic subjects. However, access to the initiative was limited by poor radio signal coverage in rural areas and a scarcity of radios and/or batteries, particularly among poorer households.

Besides, according to the United Nations Population Fund, at least 18,000 teenagers became pregnant during Ebola in Sierra Leone. Even prior to the crisis, in late 2013, the country had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. The spike in teenage pregnancy is being largely attributed to disruption of already fragile health systems including family planning and birth control, closure of schools and abusive relationships. While during the conflict many young girls became pregnant after being used as sex slaves by their captors, the negative economic impact of Ebola, as reported by Amnesty International, contributed to an increase in exploitative relationships which led to a rise in teenage pregnancy.

Due to stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone, the prohibition on pregnant girls attending schools was declared official government policy in April 2015, soon before schools re-opened following the outbreak, and is still in place. In a 2015 report, Amnesty International reported that around 10,000 girls were affected by the ban. The government announced the establishment of an alternative “bridging” education system that would let pregnant girls continue in schools, however at different times to their peers or in different premises. The majority of the girls Amnesty International interviewed felt positively about the system. But many girls said that given a choice, they would have preferred to continue in their normal school; only a few said they preferred it to their normal school due to stigma.

Role of ex-child soldiers

Lifeline Nehemiah Projects in Freetown is among the key organisations which has been working with Ebola-affected, survivors and orphans. P.J. Cole, the executive director of the Nehemiah Projects, said in an interview, “The leaders that I work with were once child soldiers who are now committed to serving their communities.” The organisation was initially set up by his parents to help ex-child soldiers in Sierra Leone rebuild their lives. During the Ebola outbreak, the organisation devised an Ebola education programme which sensitised communities about the dangers of the virus. It also provided support to over 8,000 quarantined individuals and set up an Ebola Clinic. Further, Prince Tommy Williams, an ex-child soldier in Sierra Leone, was among hundreds of volunteers who worked with the communities and Ebola-affected during the crisis. It is awe-inspiring to see many of those ex-child soldiers who experienced traumatic events and committed some of the worst atrocities during the conflict in Sierra Leone, help rebuild the lives of Ebola survivors.

Meha Dixit has a PhD in International Politics from JNU and has taught at Kashmir University.

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