Photo courtesy of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection
Africa / Sierra Leone

Ebola Today. Ebola Tomorrow.

When a sickness exits the body, it generally departs with some good courtesy. The symptoms eventually fade, and after an adequate amount of rest and recovery, the body falls back into its old routine.  Yet, once Ebola leaves Sierra Leone and fades from the headlines, what mark will it leave on the people it once affected?

The outlook is grim for Sierra Leone, a country still recovering from a brutal civil war that only ended in 2002 and took the lives of over 50,000 people. The combined impact of the recent war and controversial IMF budget restrictions has slowed overall development, leaving the country under-equipped for handling its current epidemic. The poorest of the poor are therefore the most disproportionately affected by Ebola, as they lack the necessary resources and knowledge to effectively combat the disease. Those in developed countries who fear that Ebola will “make its way into their backyards” only distract from the more serious issue at hand.  The damage caused by Ebola today will be felt long after treatment for the disease ends, and will pose a serious threat to West Africa’s future prosperity.

Ebola currently threatens Sierra Leone on a number of fronts and will undoubtedly be the cause of various forms of long-term damage. For example, 40% of Sierra Leone’s economy is dependent on crops, and has been compromised by the effort to prevent Ebola from spreading. Strict barriers have been placed on major roads and communities and have made it nearly impossible for interstate travel and trade. Farmers are stuck behind strict quarantine barriers, and cannot sell what they have secured from an already diminished harvest. In addition, food is becoming increasingly scarce, as supplies brought in by the UN Food World Program fail to reach the mouths of those who desperately need it. Economists predict that economic growth will slow to 8% instead of the previously estimated 11% as a result of this. In addition, because of the limited supply of resources, inflation is estimated to rise to 10% rather than 7.5%. If these projections are accurate, the poor will struggle to afford essential food and commodities.

Those who cannot afford food have also found themselves unable to gain access to Sierra Leone’s already limited healthcare facilities. Even those who are not sick with Ebola are turned away from poorly equipped and overburdened local health clinics. Once they are turned away, poor people’s choices are strictly limited by their country’s lack of resources. Access to clean water is not easily available for the poor to drink or, as health officials have urged people to do: “regularly wash hands.”  To add to the problem, many poor people believe that Ebola is a national conspiracy, and are reluctant to follow the government’s warnings. The nation’s trust with officials was severely damaged by the civil war, and has not been made better by how the outbreak is currently being handled. Sights of dead family members wrapped in biohazard bags and being thrown into the trunks of health workers’ vehicles add to this growing anger.

Frustration with the government continues as the spread of Ebola has caused many schools, churches, banks, and public facilities to close. With communal activities now severely limited and the fear of exposure plaguing everyone, many are forced to stay at home. This is a cause for concern, especially given the lack of security provided to many quarantined communities. Domestic and sexual abuse is now on the rise, leading to an increase in unwanted pregnancies. Before the outbreak, Sierra Leone was ranked low on neonatal and maternal heath and is now even less prepared to deal with the future generation of Sierra Leoneans.

Most feel that the government is “not doing anything” to prevent these things from happening, and continue to grow restless as Ebola burns its way through the nation. What this foreshadows for the future social and political climate of Sierra Leone is grim, as the state, only eleven years after concluding a war, proves once again that it cannot protect its own people.  Many in Sierra Leone are reminded of the old fear, suffering, and confusion once felt during the war. Yet, some consider those days relatively preferable to now, since at least then the enemy was visible.

Ebola has affected approximately 5,000 people in Sierra Leone. While this constitutes only .08% of the population, the effects that the disease has brought will reach far beyond this statistic. While developed countries focus on the imagined threat of Ebola entering their cozy communities, the slow destabilization of a region plagued by issues ranging from terrorism to military coups is happening now. Despite Sierra Leone being touted as one of the best examples of post-conflict recovery by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, the country was not yet adequately equipped to handle Ebola’s wrath. The impact of this disease is exacerbating Sierra Leone’s already fragile state capacity and is demonstrating the limitations of governance there. One day – hopefully in the relatively near future – Ebola will be a thing of the past. The dead will be remembered and the world will turn its eyes to a new issue. However, the damage Ebola leaves behind will compromise the future wellbeing of those lucky enough to survive for many years to come.