Ebola — Not Coming Soon to a Town Near You
If Ebola does not come to a town near you any time soon, it will in part be because the people of the UK have ignored those who are sceptical about aid and who claim that it is a ‘waste of money’ or that it goes to help foreigners who are ‘none of our concern’.
Ebola can cause people who catch it to bleed from the eyes and in the worst circumstances it will kill up to 90% of those it infects. Assuming we are spared the terror of an outbreak in the UK it will be, first and foremost, because of the genuinely heroic efforts of local people in West Africa working hand-in-hand with NHS volunteers and incredibly brave NGO staff. They have been fighting this deadly disease 24/7 over recent months and have now begun to bring this outbreak under control.
The international staff who do this work do not see themselves as heroes and you certainly wouldn’t notice them if you passed them in the street. It was only once I arrived at the airport in Freetown — the capital of Sierra Leone — that I realised that most of the passengers on my flight were nurses and medical staff, coming to join the fight against Ebola. Fifteen of them were in fact NHS volunteers with DEC member agency Save the Children heading to a medical facility in Kerry Town.
Medical staff are undoubtedly on the frontline of the fight against Ebola but they certainly aren’t the only ones. When I arrived at Freetown’s cemetery I found it overflowing with bodies. With so many dead, extra burial space was annexed from the neighbouring rubbish tip. It was in this extraordinary setting that I met 32-year-old Alusine Kamara. He told me he had lost his job at a restaurant when the disease struck because people were afraid to leave their homes. For the last eight months he has supported his young family by working as a gravedigger.
He said “Yes, I am worried about the risks. It is hard and exhausting work, especially in the heat. I would prefer to do something else like be a driver but I have no option and I also feel happy to serve my country.”
The other grave diggers I spoke to told similar stories. They had found pride in the work they had been forced to take up by necessity. Over time, the fear and rejection they had faced in their communities had begun to turn into appreciation for the service they offered and the risks they took. Their extraordinary work was being supported by Concern Worldwide, just one of the DEC member agencies organising or funding burial teams. That support has only been possible because of the wonderful generosity of people in the UK and around the world. These resources would never have been mobilised if the aid sceptics had got their way. The DEC alone has so far raised some £34million to stop the spread of Ebola. I was travelling to Sierra Leone to see how this money was being spent by DEC member agencies and their local partners.
During my visit I covered the western parts of Sierra Leone — Freetown, Port Loko and the area around Makeni. Places chosen because they remain amongst the worst affected areas for deaths and transmission. Even in these epicentres, I heard the hope that by the end of the year there would be no more cases of Ebola but that, in the meantime, there would still be a ‘bumpy journey to zero’ cases. Sadly, this proved to be true as during my visit there was a spike in the number of deaths and cases which dulled some of the earlier hope that had been so prevalent.
As I travelled beyond Freetown, I met a more staff and volunteers on the front line of the fight against Ebola. Teachers Ali and Alimamy who — with all the schools closed — worked with the Red Cross to help trace people who had been exposed to the disease so they could be treated or quarantined.
Zaynab and Kadija, survivors of Ebola themselves, were working for Oxfam as part of an army of social mobilisers visiting people door to door to pass on vital information and raise awareness about keeping safe from Ebola.
Pastor Gregory Bangura and Imam Ali Alsisi — who together were using faith and scripture as powerful tools to help change attitudes and behaviour to tackle this monstrous disease.
The people I met were very aware of the help they had received and very appreciative of it — even if it had arrived later than we all would have wished. Following my visit, I found that the amazing resilience of the local communities, working alongside truly heroic overseas medical staff and aid workers, had left an overwhelming impression on me.
It is thanks to each one of them that Ebola has not reached our shores this time around. But, if the immense poverty in countries like Sierra Leone persists then there is no saying when the next outbreak of Ebola — or something equally horrific — will occur.
These disasters know no borders and neither does poverty. In an increasingly globalised world, crises overseas threaten our own wellbeing and the quality of life here in the UK. If there is one lesson to be learned from the Ebola crisis it is that the international aid sceptics really could not have got it more wrong in believing that what happens ‘over there’ is none of our business.
You can find our more about how the DEC and its member agencies are supporting the fight against Ebola at: www.dec.org.uk
NOTE: This article was originally published on the Huffington Post 01/03/15.