Freetown, Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone had been the only country in the West and Central Africa region without a case of COVID-19 – that’s out of 24 countries and something to be proud of. But on March 31, things rapidly changed when the President, in a nationwide broadcast, made an announcement that the country’s index case was confirmed, a male who had traveled from Paris on an Air Brussels flight 15 days prior on March 16.
Up until then, many of us were hopeful, optimistic, and even oblivious (in retrospect), that Sierra Leone may actually succeed in avoiding the global pandemic, but our wishes were quickly shot down. I still remember that afternoon, a Tuesday (and my dad’s 68th birthday), when the news swept through the office, Whatsapp messages poured in, and the head of our agency called for an emergency all-staff meeting to activate the business continuity plan.
Fast forward 22 days – the number of confirmed cases has gone up to 61, with one death and over 600 people in quarantine. In a matter of weeks, life in Freetown rapidly transformed as regulations went into effect like the rest of the world – national lockdown, travel restrictions, school suspension, daily curfews, and business closures. In latest news, the government has now made it mandatory for everyone to wear a cloth face mask in public.
This is a country that experienced the Ebola virus epidemic not too long ago. With a fatality rate of 50%, approximately 4,000 people died in Sierra Leone during the outbreak, which lasted for little under two years. Approximately 12,000 children were orphaned as a result and the social fabric of the country was completely shattered. On the other hand, Italy had recorded around the same number of COVID-related deaths in just about a month. I clearly remember speaking to my Italian colleague about this, contemplating how crazy and surreal all of this is. Is this really happening in 2020?
I’ve seen a bunch of articles and work-related emails on how the Ebola experience has placed Sierra Leone in a good position to be prepared and respond to COVID-19 – all of the lessons learned, how the experience can even provide lessons for other countries, and the like. However, though I genuinely believe that Sierra Leoneans came out of the last crisis stronger and more resilient, I’m not so sure if the contexts are the same and the two viruses can even be compared. We cannot underestimate COVID-19. Sierra Leone should not underestimate COVID-19. The way it’s spreading globally and affecting all facets of our lives is unprecedented. It now dominates the news and our conversations, and we are downright consumed. The present is uncertain, and the future is unpredictable.
Before things became serious, my friends and I, all of us expats, were constantly debating whether to evacuate or not while flights were still available. And many of my friends did end up leaving for safety, to be close to their loved ones; but I chose to stay, both for personal and professional reasons. Now feeling a bit stuck, I still think about what the right thing to do was.
But I’ve come to a conclusion that there really is no right or wrong answer and we just have to remain positive. The only thing we can do at the moment is to take care of ourselves, and others, and to not panic about the virus, wherever you are. That life moves forward and we mustn’t let the virus make us lose sight of the bigger picture. It is not the end of the world, though it certainly feels like it.
We can’t let COVID-19 get to us, both physically and mentally. Rather, I remind myself that we in Sierra Leone need to be more cautious and fearful of the mundane diseases in Africa like malaria and cholera – with the already weak healthcare system, it would be a nightmare to get ill at this time! At least we can still go out and enjoy the lovely beaches here, I tell myself. Supermarkets are well-stocked, and restaurants are available. I look out of my apartment window and see the hustle and bustle of Wilkinson Road, a major road in Freetown, which gives me a sense of relief and normalcy. We’re going to be okay and I can’t complain.
Well I take that back – I do have a complaint… Not knowing when my next haircut will be. 😊