A year in the eye of the Ebola storm

DiseaseHealthcareSierra Leone

Food, hygiene kits, psycho-social support, health and hygiene education, livelihood assistance – just some of the ways Tearfund has reached hundreds of thousands of people affected by the Ebola outbreak.

It’s a year since Tearfund, as a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee, launched an emergency appeal to help the people of West Africa and here we look back - through the photographs of Layton Thompson - on the impact of the disease, and how Tearfund partners played a key role in combating it in Sierra Leone.

Pastor Max Aaron Cornel Joe pays a visit to Rachel Massaquio. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Pastor Max Aaron Cornel-Joe pays a visit to Rachel Massaquio at her home in Grafton, near Freetown. He was trained by Tearfund’s partner, the Evangelical Fellowship of Sierra Leone (EFSL), to conduct ‘ouse-to-ouse tock’ (house-to-house talk in the local dialect Krio), where as well as providing psycho-social support and health education, he delivered food and essential supplies to those in quarantine. During the outbreak, Rachel lost four family members to Ebola and was under quarantine for 21 days. Visitors had to keep a metre away from quarantined houses, but now, one year on, Pastor Max can sit comfortably with Rachel.

Roadside checks for ebola. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Take any journey and you’re very likely to get stopped to be checked for Ebola symptoms. Government-trained officials test for tell-tale temperature changes, while people could also be asked to wash their hands in chlorinated water at roadside taps. Drivers are expected to carry hand gels to ensure good hygiene. Checkpoints are run by either the police or military, to reinforce their importance.

Rev Thomas Bindi. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Whereas politicians often struggled to win the trust of people in the Ebola public information campaign, church leaders had much more credibility as sources of authoritative knowledge and advice. Rev Thomas Bindi helped EFSL support Ebola-affected communities in the rural area of Waterloo, where more than 300 people died from the disease. He organised grief counselling sessions for those who had lost family and friends, as well as helping survivors access practical support. In church, he would encourage congregations to accept Ebola survivors, while adapting services to minimise the risk of infection, for example stopping the use of a communal chalice for communion and organising two services instead of one so people would be less crammed together.

Imam Alhaji Abu Bakar Kowa and Rev Emmanuel Famah. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Imam Alhaji Abu Bakar Kowa and Rev Emmanuel Famah spoke with one voice during the crisis. When the authorities introduced early measures to stop Ebola, such as throwing bleach over dead bodies and removing the deceased to unknown burial sites, a culture of non-compliance set in due to what was seen as heavy-handed tactics. Tearfund brought together Muslim imams and Christian pastors, already trusted by the people, to identify scriptures upholding good practices. Measures preached from the pulpit, such as the isolation of people with Ebola symptoms and modified burial rites, quickly gained authority.

Nurse Margaret Sivali checks a baby's heart beat. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Nurse Margaret Sivali listens to a baby’s heartbeat at Tikonko Community Health Centre. Ebola claimed the lives of more than 300 doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers and the outbreak made people, including expectant mothers, reluctant to go to hospitals or clinics, and many healthcare workers were stigmatised in their own communities.

 Rev Sanata Johnson. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

At the height of the Ebola crisis, church leaders like Rev Santa Johnson played an invaluable role supporting people in quarantine, who often received little outside support. The director of development for our partner Nehado helped organise the delivery of food and other vital supplies to people confined to their homes for 21 days in case they had contracted Ebola. One of the key lessons of the crisis, she says, is that early action is vital to spread public health messages that can save lives.

 Radio New Song in Sierra Leone. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

In a country where only 43 per cent of adults are literate, alternative ways to spread health messages had to be used. Tearfund supported radio broadcasts by partners to spread them to reach potential audiences running into hundreds of thousands of people. Here staff at Radio New Song in Bo District, run by our partner Nehado, get ready to go on air.

Sierra Leone has not had any new Ebola cases now for five weeks. Please pray that remains the case, so the country can be declared free of the disease on 7 November.

Mark Lang