How coronavirus is affecting Sierra Leone
18 August 2020
Sierra Leone is a small country in West Africa with a population of a little over seven million. It is rich in natural resources, but it is also one of the poorest countries in the world.
In 2014 there was an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, which became an epidemic. Ebola can kill around half of those infected. The disease can be caught through touching an infected person, even if they have died. This makes burials very dangerous.
Sierra Leone is now fighting their coronavirus outbreak and we asked Kayode Akintola, CAFOD’s representative for Sierra Leone, to report on how CAFOD field staff, local Church agencies and experts are responding, and how international debt repayments are an ongoing issue.
What was the situation in Sierra Leone before coronavirus hit?
Sierra Leone is a country that has gone through a lot – civil war, the cholera outbreak, mudslides, seasonal flooding. Ebola was an epidemic here. It’s a country that has faced every kind of disaster, both man-made and natural disasters.
It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with a weak health system and a lot of people below the poverty line. And by that I mean people who cannot afford a meal a day.
What happened during the Ebola crisis?
Ebola devastated the economy, social systems, almost every aspect of life. It lasted almost two years.
We organised burial teams and we were also involved in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) and other projects.
Part of the reason our work was a success was because we brought leaders on board - community leaders of all faiths - and we gave them training. The community had trust and respect - they trusted these leaders - so they were able to go where others were afraid of going.
"We defeated Ebola, and we know that by the grace of God we are going to defeat coronavirus."
Kayode Akintola, CAFOD’s representative for Sierra Leone
All these things we learned have been very useful. And for us, gaining the trust of the communities was the winning formula.
These are very worrying times, but with the community involved, we refuse to be overwhelmed by the odds that are against us. We defeated Ebola, and we know that by the grace of God we are going to defeat coronavirus.
What challenges are there to preventing the spread of coronavirus?
The health system is quite fragile and weak. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but we have one of the worst health systems in the world.
We have heard the health officials talking about social distancing, but you can imagine how difficult it is to distance when the houses are so cramped together. In slums you could have ten people living together in one room, in a zinc shelter.
Hand washing in itself is very challenging – many houses have no running tap or water.
The reality is people must work to eat in this country. They live a day after another. So, when we talk in terms of lockdown or self-isolation, it becomes very difficult for so many people.
Do national debt repayments also pose challenges to fighting the virus?
The existing debt has creates huge impact as the debt is a huge burden on government spending and support to fulfilling development objectives.
Sierra Leone's external debt was $1,691,650,000 (One billion six hundred and ninety-one million, six hundred and fifty thousand United States Dollars) in March.
The government must spend $50million paying this debt in 2020 - in comparison the amount they have been able to budget for healthcare is $68million.
Cancellation of the existing debt would:
- Create an opportunity for government to spend more in implementing government programmes.
- Stabilize the exchange rate (as the government offset its debts through foreign currencies)
- Stabilize the inflation rate which is over 14% at the moment as at July 2020.
- Accelerate on social spending and help government with the space to spend in the fight against COVID19 which is putting a huge burden on government financial arrangement at the moment.
Cancellation of the existing debt would help government with the space to spend in the fight against COVID19 which is putting a huge burden on government financial arrangements at the moment.
How is CAFOD responding to coronavirus?
It is not hopeless. We can still save lives.
We are adapting our WASH programmes. We have posters, radio messages, television shows telling people to wash their hands, and we are getting those messages out to people.
We have started to mobilise faith leaders across the entire country, and to provide them with some basic messaging on prevention and the information people and communities need to keep as safe as possible.
Trust is so important. We believe that by working through faith leaders, and with the trust they have built in the communities, we can get information out about what people need to do.