When a sharp decline in the Ebola epidemic was reported in January this year, experts warned that the virus was still far from over. In fact, in Sierra Leone, the number of cases remained stable in February and March, particularly in the west of the country and the region of Freetown, where Handicap International manages the only fleet of ambulances used exclusively to transport people contaminated by the virus (or suspected of being).
“Following a drop in the number of contaminations, some organisations have started scaling-down their activities in part of the country, but Handicap International is not one of them,” explains Bruno Leclercq, the organisation’s Field Programme Director for Sierra Leone and Liberia. “To eradicate the virus, our fleet of ambulances will continue operating until the end - that is, several weeks after the last case is detected. Transporting patients is a vital part of the response to the virus - just as important as prevention or informing the local population - and we need to keep up the pressure until we win the battle against the virus.”
Although there has been a drop in the number of cases, Leclercq cautions against complacency on the part of the local population and those working to control the spread of the virus: it is only by maintaining strict controls - which have had a significant impact on the epidemic - that we can hope to eradicate the virus. This task has been made more difficult by the fact that people can see life returning to normal, such as the gradual reopening of schools.
“Most of the people involved in the fight against the virus are volunteers from Sierra Leone”
Although the people of Sierra Leone are growing weary of the current restrictions - meetings are still mostly banned, and places of entertainment have to close at a particular time - they are also incredibly committed to overcoming this crisis. “Containing the epidemic has required a lot organisation,” explains Leclercq. “Thousands of local people are helping out, and it’s important to remember that they represent the vast majority of those involved in the fight against the virus today.”
Despite the risk to their own lives and possible rejection by their own communities, they have volunteered in large numbers to work as ambulance drivers, nurses and decontaminators. Many are normally temporary workers in sometimes precarious social situations, so the work offered as part of the fight against Ebola is an exceptional opportunity to earn an income and to play a vital role in helping their country.
“I was personally very moved when I met a midwife who delivers babies in a health centre, despite the risks and the restrictions imposed by the fight against the epidemic. She works in stifling temperatures, covered head to foot in a safety suit, without any direct contact with the mother or child.” Because the virus has not been beaten yet, we need to keep talking about it, carry on with our efforts, and bear in mind the exceptional dedication of the thousands of workers who continue to fight this epidemic.