Nun tells of Sierra Leone town paralysed with fear of Ebola
‘Everyone’s terrified. With Ebola there’s little you can do,’ says Sr Mary Sweeney
Sr Mary Sweeney: ‘Being powerless is causing everyone to live in intense fear.’
The bustling town of Makeni falls silent at night. There has been a curfew on motorbikes between 7pm and 7am since an Ebola patient was smuggled out of hospital by relatives. Clubs and bars have closed: even if they were open, people would not visit as they are too scared to go out.
Mining corporations – which a year ago were a beacon of renewed foreign investment in Sierra Leone – have sent staff home.
Public gatherings have been banned as have three-, seven- and 40-day burial ceremonies.
“The place is so quiet at night,” says Sr Mary Sweeney, of St Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired, in a prominent building on a main road out of town.
She has lived through many disasters in her 40 years in Sierra Leone including three evacuations, one during the blood-diamond war 12 years ago.
But Sr Mary, from Co Donegal, says the battle against Ebola, with no visible front line, has created a fear she has never seen before.
She runs the children’s school, which benefited from more than €40,000 in donations from Irish Times readers last year after a feature highlighting how it was running out of aid.
It is not at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak – that is hours away in the eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun where hundreds of thousands of people are under quarantine. But the outbreak is so deadly – more than 1,200 people have died and more than 2,000 have contracted the disease in four west African countries – the fear of contagion is paralysing life.
Sr Mary’s school was emptied of pupils and teachers three weeks ago under a state of emergency.
“Everyone is terrified, they just don’t know where they could meet it,” says Sr Mary. “People have been asking me whether I am afraid. I cannot say I am, it’s different from the war. At that time I somehow felt in control, because we could run from the rebels, we could help those that were wounded or in crisis.
“But with Ebola there’s little you can do other than explain what it is and how to avoid it. Being powerless is causing everyone to live in intense fear,” she says.
“We only go out when we have to. We make sure we keep up with hygiene procedures: hand washing and no body contact. This was very difficult for Sierra Leoneans who shake hands all the time.”
Dublin-based Dr Gabriel Fitzpatrick, a volunteer with Medecins sans Frontiers who has been working in Kailahun since June, says MSF are at “full stretch”. The isolation hospital where he works has seen 122 deaths and 52 survivors.“There is a lot of upset,” he says.
He tells of one family of nine that was wiped out after the grandmother contracted Ebola on August 4th. Death is swift. The natural instinct of patients is to spend their last days with loved ones, leading to contact with the community and further deaths.
“We bring survivors back to the village because they might be rejected by their families. If you bring the patient in our car and hold their hand they have a better chance of being accepted, it re-assured them – you can’t catch it twice,” he says .
The emergency is having an economic effect with the price of chlorine and rubber gloves for health workers rocketing. “The health infrastructure is still very fragile,” says Sr Mary.