World Humanitarian Day: Ebola response is not over
After spending several months in Sierra Leone working on projects aiming to reduce Ebola spread and supporting people to cope with the devastating effects of the epidemic, I can really see a change in the air for the better.
Even as you visit areas of Freetown where food is being delivered to houses under quarantine, drive around the country passing countless checkpoints for temperature checks, talk to Ebola survivors about the new problems and stigma they are facing, and meet with teams sweating in their protective suits for decontaminating houses where people have died, the mood in Sierra Leone has definitely started moving back to its usual busy and friendly hubbub; just with the added bonus of smelling of chlorine. Market stalls and businesses have reo-opened, children can be seen wearing uniforms and school bags again, and people have even started shaking hands again after a long period of fear and doubt of any human contact.
More than a year after the Ebola Virus was declared an emergency, the light can almost be seen at the end of the tunnel now that confirmed cases have almost reached zero. Hindsight provides 20/20 vision and the positives and negatives of the response can now be discussed more easily; but during those first few months, nothing like this had ever been seen before.
In my time as a humanitarian I had not yet seen so much uncertainty as to what to do about an invisible killer rather than a very tangible typhoon, flood or bullets flying around.
How do you deliver food aid to people who do not want any aid workers to come near them and sometimes even attack them? How do you convince people that it is good for them to let you into their homes looking like ghostbusters to spray random liquid and burn their belongings? How can you ask people to stop honouring their dead with their usual customs and instead watch them be carted off to be buried in special pits?
All members of Sierra Leonean society, the government, the army and the international community have come together to answer those questions and turn the tide of Ebola spread. It is common to see all this coordination in humanitarian emergencies but in this response I have seen the impact of working together and teams relying on others to be able to complete all of their work.
Food packages are not just delivered to people who may be infected. At the same time local leaders talk to them about the importance of staying at home to avoid infecting others, security forces help establish safe boundaries, families are given updates on their loved ones taken for treatment, teenagers come on radio shows to warn against the dangers young people face, and social workers go door to door helping children to not be afraid.
While humanitarian organisations have pushed the boundaries on different response, the aid that has been delivered would not have had the same effects without Sierra Leonean local leaders, women's groups, traditional healers, army officers, nurses, doctors, school teachers, boys, girls, teenagers and government officials coming together to change minds about Ebola, change behaviour, and care for sick people at great personal risk.
All people have had a role to play and it is their combined efforts that have been great to see as the sources for renewed hope in the country.
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