President Koroma lifts Ebola emergency regulations

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 7 August 2015

president koroma2012

After months of political dithering and growing accusations of using the Ebola emergency regulations for party political advantage, president Koroma has today finally decided to lift most of the measures that have been in place for a year.

Today’s announcement will give much needed respite to the majority of Sierra Leoneans that have strictly observed the Ebola regulations to the letter, including the ban on social gathering and restricted market trading.

Perhaps the main beneficiary of today’s announcement could be the economy. Major airlines such as British Airways and Gambian Bird that have stopped flying to and from Sierra Leone, have largely mimicked those government restrictions.

Sierra Leone has experienced over 80% fall in its tourism numbers, since the start of the crisis in 2014.

Economic growth has seen the largest drop since the end of the war in 2001, as production in the mining industry and agriculture sector fell.

London MiningGDP growth has declined to about 4% from a pre-Ebola annual average of about 13%, costing the government of Sierra Leone over $250 million in revenue.

Politically too, the Ebola restrictions had proven to be highly unpopular, with the rise in arrests of opposition politicians and civil society activists.

The arbitrary use of the emergency laws to curtail, intimidate and harass those speaking out against the abuse of power by government officials and corruption in high places – especially the media, had become intolerable.

But today, president Koroma has listened to the silent majority in Sierra Leone that have become increasingly impatient for the lifting of an emergency regulation that discriminates in favour of the rich and powerful, to whom the police turn a blind eye, as they rampantly violate the restrictions.

The people of Sierra Leone are sick and tired of watching the rich and powerful being allowed to bury their dead, as and when and where they deem fit, whilst the poor and weak must succumb to the indignity of allowing the Ebola burial teams to unceremoniously cart their dead loved ones away, for burial in unmarked graves in disused rubbish dumps.

President Koroma at malabo ebola conferenceToday’s announcement by president Koroma of the lifting of most of the restrictions, with the exception of a few necessary evils – such as the burial restriction, will nonetheless be welcomed.

Ebola has taken the lives of 3,585 people, and 8,695 people tested positive with the virus. Eleven medical doctors and over 200 nurses have so far died.

And the virus is still causing havoc in the north of the country and the capital Freetown. Hence, many in Sierra Leone are opposed to the lifting of the emergency regulations.

But civil liberty campaigners have long argued that the curtailing of basic freedoms is a price too high to pay, especially as the country has now largely succeeded in containing the virus with the help of the international health agencies and WHO.

The lifting of the restrictions must not lead to complacency, nor should it be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the president.

If anything, it should provide a good test as to the extent of attitudinal and culture change in the country, especially towards basic hygiene and the traditional handling of the dead.

And it is noted that president Koroma has lifted the restrictions against the poor judgement and bad advice of his political patrons, media handlers and supporters.

But a close confidante of the president told the Sierra Leone Telegraph that most parliamentarians, ministers, civil servants and business owners have quite simply had enough of the emergency restrictions.

They – the power brokers of Sierra Leone, would like to see the immediate opening of the bars and entertainment spots, and the full return of flights to and from Sierra Leone.

Ebola in Liberia

This is what president Koroma told the people of Sierra Leone during his announcement today:

“It has been just over one year since I declared a National State of Emergency, as our country was confronted with an outbreak on an unprecedented scale.

Over the months that followed that declaration, our healthcare workers, our Ebola Response volunteers and our communities, working in close collaboration with our international partners have battled with vigilance and determination to overcome the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic.

We have made tremendous gains and today we have just 4 confirmed cases nationwide and only two transmission chains. 9 of the 14 districts have not recorded a confirmed case for in excess of 110 days.

When I addressed you on the issues of restrictions related to Ebola in June, we experienced upsurges of cases in the Kambia and Port Loko Districts. I am happy to note the successes of Operation Northern Push in tackling these events and today both districts have recorded 26 days with no new cases.

This is a clear demonstration of how with sustained community engagement and the backing of appropriate health support we can beat this disease. But we are not yet out of the woods.

In the last two weeks, we have recorded three cases in Tonkolili District, a district which had gone over 150 days without a case. We still have over 500 contacts to monitor from those cases.

We are monitoring them for at least 21 days to ensure that if they develop symptoms, we can quickly move them to a facility for testing.

It is credit to Sierra Leoneans that you have complied with the exceptional regulations and restrictions my government has implemented on the advice from the world’s leading epidemiologists from the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sierra Leone did not experience this Ebola epidemic alone. Our sister countries and neighbours, Guinea and Liberia were also badly affected by the same deadly viral disease.

And, Ebola is a very stubborn disease, and our experts tell us that it usually comes back to places that are declared Ebola free. We have seen this happen in our sister Republic of Liberia.

This is a reminder to us in Sierra Leone that even as we strive to get to zero, we shall have to remain vigilant and on our guard in anticipation of any future Ebola outbreaks. Together we must remain the eyes and ears in this fight.

So as I say again, we have made progress, but we still have more work to do.

Only after we have recorded 42 successive days of zero cases after the last Ebola patient has been tested negative, will the World Health Organization declare the Ebola outbreak over in Sierra Leone.

Until that point, my government deems it wise to maintain in force key restrictions to protect public health.

However, some measures are no longer deemed necessary at this stage of the fight. My government will lift the following restrictions with immediate effect:

  1. The prohibition on public meetings and gatherings is lifted.
  2. The prohibition on sporting activities is lifted.
  3. The prohibition of nightclubs and video centre operations is lifted.
  4. The prohibition on market and general activities is lifted. However, the ban on markets and general trading on Sundays shall remain in place.
  5. Okadas to operate from 6 am to midnight daily.

These restrictions are eased, provided venues and facilities adhere to all Ebola Prevention Protocols, including temperature screening of employees and customers, hand-washing and prevention of overcrowding.

Failure to observe these essential public health measures will result in the closure or barring of activities.

However, in view of the challenges we still face with incidences of unsafe burial, and the need for quarantining and placing restrictions on large number of persons who may be contacts of persons with Ebola, I hereby proclaim another state of Public Emergency as by law provided.

Through the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC), my government is still consulting with stakeholders and international technical experts and partners on changes to the safe and dignified burial policy. The CEO of NERC will announce more on this shortly.

Let me stress that pending this announcement, there are as yet no changes to the burial practice.

The Ebola epidemic has been a devastating challenge to Sierra Leone. However, we can emerge stronger and wiser. I cannot stress enough the importance that we stay the course.

The easing of restrictions is not a sign that Ebola is over. It is not. We must remain on our guard. The risk has receded but Ebola has not fully retreated. We must stay the course.

We must all remain vigilant in our households and communities. We must continue to call 117 to report the sick and the dead in our communities and households, and provide the right information to Ebola response workers who visit our communities to investigate cases.

We must continue to implement the safe and dignified burial policies. It is only by doing these right things that we can be sure of a resilient zero.

I thank you all for your continued cooperation. Together, we shall overcome this scourge of a disease, recover, and resume our path to prosperity and development.”

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