As a specialist in mental health and psychological support, my work for World Vision has taken me to many diverse communities all over the globe. Usually I’m called in to help when a population has suffered a natural disaster or conflict. The children I meet have often lost close family members and suffered the psychological wounds created by the destruction of almost everything that was familiar in their environment.
The reports that reach the international media will always highlight the destruction and chaos that ensues in the wake of a disaster or conflict. But in reality, life goes on, even in the worst circumstances. And there’s always stories of great hope and courage, that often go unnoticed amongst the devastating scenes showed in the news.
I often find the situation on the ground is very different from how it is presented through the media.
Nowhere has the contrast between reality and international perception been more stark than in Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the cities worst hit by the recent Ebola outbreak. Before I arrived here, I was hearing that Ebola is as easy to catch as the common cold!
Now, after being here in Freetown, I can see that this contrast between reality and international perception is likely about the risk to front line health workers and not everyone else in the country, who are at a much lower risk.
In fact, the Ebola virus is not airborne, which makes it much less contagious than people imagine. The only way to catch the virus is by coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is in the active stages of the disease. That’s why the health workers, especially nurses and close family members, are at a much higher risk of contracting the disease. Looking after a very sick person puts you at high risk of coming into contact with their bodily fluids. Naturally, this is why health workers are wearing special plastic suits, which cover their bodies from head to toe – a scene that frequently appears in the news.
The bodies of those who have died from the disease are also highly contagious, so the burial teams run by World Vision wear protective gear too.
But there is no reason for anyone else who works for World Vision or anyone in the general public in Sierra Leone to do so.
Before I came I was expecting to be almost unable to function because the danger of infection would be so great. But now I’m here, I find that I am functioning just fine. Of course, I need to take all reasonable steps to avoid illness, such as regular hand washing, not sharing food and so forth. Yet these are measures I would take anywhere when travelling.
A World Vision worker washes his hands at a typical checkpoint in Freetown.
I’ve also seen that the people here in Freetown are taking it very seriously. I expected there to be a few checks at the airport. Now I find my temperature being taken every time I return to the hotel and any time I enter a public building. An elevated temperature is one of the first signs of the disease. So all the locals are respecting the need to regularly check themselves and their visitors.
As well, it’s important to put the scale of the crisis in perspective. The latest reported figures show that 3,083 have died of Ebola in Sierra Leone. This is a very large number of people and it’s understandable why so many cases have overwhelmed an already fragile health system. But out of a total population of some six million people, we must recognize that there are many families here who will not know of anyone who has contracted the disease.
People here are also making individual and community efforts to halt the spread of the disease.
Yes, the disease needs to be taken seriously and the potential for spread is huge, but we must be guided by the facts and not paranoia.
The risk to the population here was so much greater than it would have been in more developed countries because they simply did not have adequate laboratory facilities, treatment centres or even enough fuel for their ambulances. It was not until the international community sent in significant resources in October and November that the course of the outbreak began to change.
I do worry that those who have come to help will leave soon and the long term process of recovery will be neglected.
A tough recovery
Many Sierra Leoneans have not been touched by Ebola directly, but the indirect effects of closed schools, overwhelmed health facilities and a declining economy are being felt by nearly everyone. The economic effect of markets, hotels and restaurants being closed for months has seen many people laid off and may struggle to get back to their pre-Ebola status.
For me, I want to focus on how we are now going to help children, their families and communities begin to recovery from their losses – both of loved ones, possessions, financial resources, education – and tap into their resilience to bounce back.
The mental well-being of people will be critical to support in the coming six months. We need to ensure families have the chance to grieve for those that have died, or other tangible losses they may have experienced. For some children who are now without one or both parents to care for them, we must ensure they receive the love and care they will need, well into the future.
We’ll have to ensure teachers are trained to provide support to children when they re-enter school and help them to ‘catch up’ on so much lost time. The recovery is where my role really takes off here in Sierra Leone. Thankfully, the dangers to me working here are not as great as they are for others, so with the right financial backing, I have every confidence we can deliver on what the children and their families need.