Ebola outbreak rocks peace work in Sierra Leone

Huge steps backwards in peacebuilding

The first cases of Ebola were suspected among a family living in Buedu, in the remote border chiefdom of Kissy Teng, Kailahun district. The virus was suspected to have been contracted by a family member while attending a funeral of a suspected patient on the other side of the border in Guinea.

Peace and harmony deluded the border communities owing to accusations and counter accusations as to the cause of the outbreak. On the Guinean side, facilities of the health NGO, Doctors without Borders, responding to the outbreak, were attacked, vandalized and the workers fled amidst accusations of haven brought the disease to the region.

Communities on the Sierra Leone side of the border also attacked the government health workers and set the drug store on fire in protest against preparations by health workers to set up a transit and treatment centre in the event of an outbreak. Chaos and anarchy broke out when false rumours were spread that health workers collecting blood samples of suspected family members of confirmed cases were actually infusing the Ebola virus into the blood of patients.

Peacebuilders around the country were faced with monitoring and managing an emerging conflict between health workers and community members as a result of the Ebola outbreak. The police were called in to support health workers and in some cases protect the latter against hostile communities as they monitored suspected cases. At one point communities mobilized and attacked an isolation center, grabbed their Ebola infected members and took them to an unknown location. The security officers searched, found and brought back the infected patient in handcuffs and kept him chained to his sick bed in a heavily guarded isolation ward. A few days later, the health workers suggested that the fleeing family members may have been infected while nursing their infected relative. An extensive man haunt was immediately ordered for the fleeing family members of the first confirmed Ebola patient. During this search, innocent persons were harassed and in some cases arrested in error.

Once more, peaceful co-existence has eluded the hitherto peaceful communities of Kailahun district whose people were said to have suffered the most in the recently concluded civil war. The situation is reminiscence of the decade long civil war that started in that same district and spread throughout the country, just as the Ebola virus has spread through the length and breadth of Sierra Leone only this time with unprecedented speed and mercilessness.

Implications for the food security and peacebuilding nexus

Food security is of huge public interest in every poor country. In a country as Sierra Leone barely recovering from the crushing effects of a civil war that dispossessed half of her population and devastated the economic and social fabrics of the entire nation, one cannot discuss peace without direct reference to the nation’s food security. The reasons for this could be seen in the direct correlation between the “pillars” of food security to the state of peace-less-ness – at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels. Whereas limited availability, accessibility, instability of supply and poor utilization of food constitute food insecurity, these factors are vital signs of looming peaceless-ness.

Worthy of note is that the outbreak happened just at the time when farmers prepared for the annual planting season. Farming activities became the first casualties in the fight against the Ebola disease. Disastrous is an understatement for describing the situation of a country when farming starts from the so called ‘bread basket’. The consequences on all sectors of our society can be nothing short of catastrophic.

Prizes of food items have sky-rocketed since the outbreak around the country particularly the quarantined epic-centers of the outbreak. Even as Sierra Leoneans fight the outbreak of a most dreaded disease, we prepare for what will come to pass into history as the hungriest season in the region. The fore-going scenario has greatly weakened an already very wobbling food security and by extension, our fragile peace.

The Ebola outbreak coincided with the beginning of the farming season, but the chaotic situation that accompanied the Ebola outbreak had forced grieving farmers who had lost loved ones in quick successions to withdraw from their farmlands to brood over their helplessness against the deadly virus. Meanwhile, the rest of the country was rife with misinformation about the deadly nature of the disease and the non-existence of any treatment in modern medicine. The battle with the dreaded Ebola raged on as one death followed the other. The seasonal rains which mark the beginning of the planting and also the hunger season crept in unnoticed. Fear and despair have left farm lands unattended. Farmers have once more resigned to a sad state of hunger and hopelessness as their loved ones get viciously snatched from their midst while awaiting their painful fate.

Poverty in Sierra Leone could be seen in the state of our very weak health system. In an unprecedented move, the Head of State visited the Ebola isolation and treatment center in the epic-centre of the disease in the Eastern Region about 100 days after the outbreak. A move that was seen by critics as coming rather too late. The outbreak started in the opposition stronghold of the political divide plaguing Sierra Leone. Accordingly, not even the visit of the Head of State convinced the affected communities that the Government was serious about fighting the disease that was ravaging the opposition side of the political divide.

At long last the Head of State, in a seeming state of panic, declared a state of public health emergency. The President also ordered the closure of all mushroom health facilities, educational institutions, entertainment centres and called on the general public to scale down all other engagements and step up efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak. He ordered a halt to the ongoing infrastructural development work around the country and the diversion of available funds to the fight against Ebola. He called on the national security system – police and military - to support the Ministry of Health in enforcing the health emergency.

The foregoing was the turning point in the unfolding drama of the Ebola outbreak. Calling on the assistance of the police and the army to support the health sector had huge security implications for our fragile peace. Once more, soldiers carrying the familiar AK47 rifles appeared in the streets of Freetown and other cities and towns, road blocks and checkpoints manned by armed police and military personnel appeared. The somber mood, reminiscence of the recently concluded civil war was back in Sierra Leone again.

Peacebuilding programs of Civil Peace Service partners needed urgent review to respond to the Ebola outbreak. With no experience in relating to an outbreak of this proportion, Bread for the World/Civil Peace Service Partners joined other health serving civil society organizations in a health coalition to develop messages for public education on the causes, prevention and management of the disease. Civil Peace Service partners came into the coalition along with their European peace workers and their expertise in high spirit to mobilize public support and corporation halt the spread of Ebola. But the hope to fight the outbreak with the help of our highly motivated peace workers remained a pipe-dream. Due to the virtual breakdown of the health system in Sierra Leone and the realization that there will be no possibility to evacuate the peace workers in case one contracts the virus or any other disease for that matter, partners painfully agreed to let go the professionals so they can return home. „We need the peace workers when they are alive to work with us” was the popular view of organisational heads.

At the time when we needed the support of the resourcefulness and sharp initiative and creativity of the Civil Peace Service peace workers they needed to retreat to safety and watch the battle against Ebola from afar. The withdrawal of non-essential service foreign nationals and indeed travel bands to Sierra Leone threw the proverbial spanner in the works. The set-back in our fight against the Ebola outbreak as a result of this panic over reaction was beyond measure.

At this point, rumors were once more doing the rounds that the two districts with the highest confirmed cases of Ebola will be quarantined. Others claimed that government was planning to impose a lock down on the whole country for a period of one month in order to halt the spread of Ebola.

A mad rush for buying and stocking food items ensued and in the process, drying the market of basic commodities including the staple food rice. With the land lying fallow and business men sky-rocketing the prices of food stuff, the already weak food security in our post conflict country is suddenly at its worse again rendering the populace hostile and peaceless.

As if this was not grave enough, sea and air vessel operators suspended operations in the country for fear of their staff contracting Ebola. Their actions have drastically disrupted food supply to our import dependent nation. Sierra Leoneans are fighting and losing a vicious battle not only against the Ebola virus but against hunger and a real threat to our very existence.

Peacebuilders are at a loss to build peace where floods of fear and despair of a dreaded disease has swept away the very foundation for peace. Post Ebola will be yet another post conflict era requiring mass input in support of psycho-social therapy for all facets of surviving victims. A fresh start awaits peacebuilders in the Post Ebola Era in the Mano River Region.

Shecku Kawusu Mansaray is adult educator at SLADEA.

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