In Sierra Leone, as the Coronavirus slowly takes hold, Trócaire Programme Manager Eimear Lynch explains there is trepidation over what may come, yet there is vast experience from fighting the ebola crisis.
The number of confirmed Covd-19 infections in the country is slowly rising here in Sierra Leone, with over 700 confirmed cases and more than 40 deaths so far. However, the devastating experience of Ebola has led to a mix of fear combined with a proactive response.
When the first Coronavirus case was announced on the last day of March, people were extremely concerned. This anxiety was compounded by the shadow of their recent past.
In 2014-15, Sierra Leone was devastated by Ebola, which claimed the lives of over 3,500 people. Traumatic memories are easily revived from that terrible time.
There is a tense feeling and atmosphere in the air in Freetown. The streets are quieter than usual, but we are a few weeks behind Ireland and Europe in terms of the crisis fully hitting the country.
However, people feel that there are lessons that can be learnt from the Ebola response. They are hopeful that experience can be put to good use.
Struggling to make ends meet under lockdown
For most of the past few weeks we have been in a partial lockdown – people can move outside of their homes, but you can’t move between districts – and there is a curfew from 9pm until 6am. However, the government has also implemented temporary three-day total lockdowns during which people cannot go outside their house.
This is due to the nature of the informal economy here. While the human cost of Ebola was huge, the measures implemented to contain it also had a big economic impact that greatly affected people’s lives.
In the communities where Trócaire works, people are living day to day. Many are day labourers, traders or farmers. A longer lockdown would be almost impossible for the majority of people in the country as they would not be in a position to stockpile food and other essential supplies.
‘People are worried about going to health facilities now’
Public-messaging work is essential as there tends to be a lot of rumours going around that can contribute to the general feeling of fear. People are worried about going to health facilities now as they fear they will catch the virus. An important thing then is just sharing factual information around what is known around the virus.
Trócaire and our Sierra Leonean partners, many of whom would have been working during the Ebola crisis, were quick to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, sharing information and awareness messages around Coronavirus prevention.
We have been working on sharing messages on the radio and with the Ministry of Health around communities, through public speakers and also through mobile phones. Rural communities appreciate such information and it is helping both to dispel unfounded rumours and to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Responding to the greatest needs
There is a major lack of clean, running ater in the communities where we work, so our partners have also been distributing hand-washing materials, as well as face masks.
Like the knock-on effects of Ebola, Coronavirus is going to have a huge impact on the ability of women and men to make an income and to provide for their families.
Movement and livelihoods are dramatically affected, with local markets now closed down in certain districts. We are supporting small farmers to ensure they can finish their planting in addition to protecting food security in households as the situation worsens.
In Kambia and various other local districts, groups of local women and men are making hand-washing materials, including buckets and soaps. This has an extra benefit as it potentially provides another small but important source of income.
Two of our local partners – Action of Advocacy and Development in Sierra Leone (AADSL) and the Kambia District Development Rehabilitation Organisation (KADDRO) – have vast experience from supporting communities during Ebola.
They were very quick to restart similar initiatives weeks before the first case of Coronavirus here. The importance of working with local Sierra Leonean organisations was emphasised during the Ebola crisis. Local organisations know their communities and they have strong links with the people there. This allows Trócaire and partners to have a better understanding of the needs of the communities.
Violence against women
The impact of the lockdown on women and girls and the possibility for an increase in violence in this situation is also a great concern.
Accessing psycho-social support can be difficult for people who have experienced violence, but our Irish Aid funding is helping to set up hotlines to provide such support remotely.
Another Trócaire partner runs an emergency phone line for people who require medical support after experiencing gender-based or domestic violence.
We can’t do this without your support
While we have responded quickly, there remains a real uncertainty and anxiety. How is COVID-19 going to impact on the economy and the ability of people to provide for their families? We can see the effects already, but that is only going to get worse.
I would like to thank our supporters back in Ireland as their generous donations ensure that we will be able to continue our response.
My friends and family back at home have told me wonderful stories of the support we have received so far. I find it very heartening, but not at all surprising, and I just want to say thank you.
Eimear Lynch is Trócaire’s Sierra Leone Programme Manager based in the capital Freetown.
Trócaire’s funding has been hit badly by the Coronavirus crisis. The people your donations support overseas are among the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.
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