- - Sunday, March 15, 2015

LOKOMASAMA, Sierra Leone — This time of year, traders usually are busy buying rice and other foodstuffs from towns in the swampy inland valleys north of Freetown, the capital of this poor country.

But the rampaging Ebola epidemic first reported exactly a year ago has snuffed out that commerce, along with the lives of 3,629 Sierra Leoneans, according to the latest World Health Organization data.

“We used to work in groups because we use manual labor to plant,” said Amara Kanu, a farmer. “But with the coming of Ebola, gatherings were restricted, and hence we can’t converge in large groups to work in the farms. My family was quarantined at a time when my rice was almost ripe in my farm. I lost all of it to the birds and thieves.”

Health workers and international aid workers have made headway against Ebola in Liberia, and children are going back to school in Guinea after months of staying home to avoid spreading the deadly disease.

But Sierra Leone still struggles with a spike in cases and, as Mr. Kanu’s plight illustrates, the fallout from the Ebola scourge won’t be limited to the health field. There are growing fears the deadly virus could erase years of hard-fought gains in the economy, with rice production in Sierra Leone, for example, almost nonexistent. Without international aid, famine would be imminent.



“We never saw this war coming; we were never prepared for it,” said Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma earlier this month during a European Union conference on Ebola in Brussels. “We were implementing policies that were making our country one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But the outbreak is moving our economy towards recession this year.”

Sierra Leone’s economy grew by 14 percent in 2013, said Mr. Koroma. Last year, before the Ebola outbreak in the fall, the IMF was projecting 11.3 percent growth. Half of the country’s private workforce is jobless. About 1.76 million children have not attended school for the past six months, and the disease has orphaned thousands of children.

Meanwhile, 10 health care workers with a Boston-based nonprofit group responding to Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak are to be evacuated to the United States after one of their colleagues was infected with the deadly disease, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

Partners in Health said in a statement Saturday that the 10, the largest group to be evacuated to the U.S. over possible Ebola exposure, would travel on noncommercial aircraft and be isolated in Ebola treatment facilities, the AP reported.

More than 11,600 people have contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone since the outbreak, the most out of the three countries hit hardest by the disease, WHO reported. The rate of new cases has been outpacing Guinea and Liberia too. Last month, for example, a spike of 20 cases erupted in the fishing village of Aberdeen near Freetown, possibly due to an unsafe burial.

“A single positive case can lead to several new infections,” said Paolo Conteh, head of Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Center. “The new infections in Aberdeen near Freetown have spread up quickly in Bombali in the north, where a whole village has been quarantined.”

Many Sierra Leoneans never gave up habits that spread the virus, like seeking the care of herbalists rather than physicians, touching dead bodies at burials and failing to wash their hands conscientiously, said Mr. Conteh. Others stopped those practices but resumed them in recent months as the spread of Ebola slowed.

“We should not relent. People need to change their attitudes,” he said. “Our neighbors are doing better because the people obey the rules, while our people here are reverting back to the old tricks.”

While 4,162 Liberians have died from Ebola since the outbreak started, fewer are now catching the disease there. For two consecutive weeks — a first since last year — WHO didn’t confirm any new cases in the country. Around 5,200 people have been infected but are still alive.

In Guinea, where 2,170 people have died — the fewest amount in the three countries — officials were confident enough in their anti-contamination measures to open schools at the start of the year. A total of 1,115 people are either still battling or have survived the virus. WHO, Doctors Without Borders and other international health organizations are now testing trials for an Ebola vaccine in the country.

Struggling to recover

In Sierra Leone, meanwhile, nightclubs and entertainment venues remain closed. Businesses must shut down after 6 p.m. Freetown’s popular beach is no longer lively. Schools are expected to open at the end of March, but many parents are expressing skepticism and fear about officials’ capacity to protect their children.

“If proper hand-washing facilities, thermometers and health experts are not deployed in schools, I will not risk sending my kids to school when they reopen,” said Humu Sesay, an Ebola survivor who lives in Masiaka, around 40 miles east of Freetown.

In the midst of the campaign against Ebola, the virus has now become a factor in a major political scandal for the first time.

In early March, the ruling All People’s Congress party expelled Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana from the party, accusing him of lying about his master’s degree from an American university, claiming to be Muslim when he was Christian and other charges.

Mr. Sam-Sumana has denied the charges and will fight the expulsion in court. The stakes in the case are high. Under Sierra Leone’s constitution, the vice president must belong to a political party to hold office. Mr. Koroma, first elected in 2007, is in his second and final term; Mr. Sam-Sumana would be the obvious heir apparent.

Many are raising questions about the timing of the conflict. The vice president is now in a 21-day self-imposed quarantine after one of his bodyguards died of Ebola. Supporters believe Mr. Sam-Sumana’s rivals within the Cabinet decided to pounce when he’s isolated and can’t defend himself in public.

“I see the issue as a battle for succession in 2018,” said Aiah Sinnah, a Sam-Sumana supporter from Freetown. “Why are they only raising these issues now after Koroma’s eight years in office? The truth is, the bigger picture is still unfolding.”

Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Democracy, an independent government watchdog set up after the country’s civil war ended in the 2000s, recently warned the country’s leaders and citizens not to let the political intrigue over the vice president distract them from battling the virus.

“Almost everything is hinged on the end of the Ebola epidemic,” the commission said in a recent public statement. “Remain calm, see beyond the now, be law abiding and contribute to the rebuilding of the nation from the wreckage of the Ebola scourge.”

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