As the Ebola outbreak is officially declared over, Mike – who led our team heading up ActionAid's emergency repsonse in Sierra Leone and Liberia – reflects on the devastating effects that the disease has had across West Africa and calls on the international community to invest in recovery and to help rebuild shattered lives.
I’ll never forget the terrifying scenes of September 2014, when the Ebola outbreak was at its peak and looked out of control. People in West Africa were dying agonising deaths unattended, bodies were being taken from homes by men in masks and gowns and thousands placed in quarantine, at risk of having caught an incurable and highly contagious disease.
Thanks to the combined efforts of many, the spread of the disease was slowed. Safe burial, contact tracing, improvements in healthcare facilities and most importantly, changes in the behaviours and attitudes of the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all helped.
The disease gradually became isolated into a few hotspots, and now, shortly after Sierra Leone and Guinea were declared Ebola free, the last remaining country, Liberia has passed that final hurdle. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is officially over almost two years after it began.
Ebola killed more than 11,000 people
It’s been a long time coming, and after a few false starts already, celebrations in Liberia are likely to be muted. Nevertheless, the importance of this moment should not be underestimated. It’s come at a huge cost. More than 11,000 people are officially recorded as having been killed by Ebola during the outbreak and it is generally believed that the true figure is much higher. Another 17,000 people caught the disease but survived, a lot of whom continue to be affected, both mentally and physically by the consequences.
One of those affected was Finda, from Bandafayie in the Kono district in the west of Sierra Leone, who I met on a visit to our Ebola response programme. She lost her husand to Ebola and found herself and her two small children quarantined at home. In advanced pregnancy when her husband fell sick, Finda gave birth alone two weeks after his death.
“I have never experienced so much loneliness in my life like I did during the quarantine period. I cannot describe the anguish I experienced in giving birth on my own."
She told me: “I have never experienced so much loneliness in my life like I did during the quarantine period. I used to see my children going to sleep easily, but for me it was hard and they could not provide an emotional support to me because they are too young.”
Finda went on: “I cannot describe the anguish I experienced in giving birth on my own. I miraculously gave birth to my boy and he is a normal baby. My children cannot explain what they saw.”
Finda and her family face an uncertain future. With her husband’s income lost, she needs to find the means of supporting her young family alone. For her and for many thousands of others, the end of the outbreak is not the end of Ebola’s impact. It will stay for the rest of her life.
Ebola has left the poor even poorer
As well as individual families, wider society has also been heavily hit. The health services of the affected countries have been hit hard, with many staff lost to the disease and a major disruption to already weak and flimsy health systems and infrastructure. Schools are facing the strain of trying to make up the lost time from many months of closure and bringing back into the system the many children who dropped out. For all countries, Ebola has caused a massive slowing down of economies and markets, losing years of progress. Overall, the disease has left the poor even poorer and the vulnerable even more at risk.
Recovery is going to take time, and needs at least as much investment as in fighting the disease. Otherwise, Ebola will take a second, less visible, toll on the people of the affected region. ActionAid is working with survivors' families, with women like Finda, to help them find alternative income sources, through farming, animal rearing and small businesses.
We’re helping orphans cope and get back into something like a normal life and resume their schooling, and we’re working to tackle the question of stigma. The community teams we trained to monitor the outbreak and identify cases are helping us do this. They’re known and trusted by the people around them.
At the same time they’re remaining vigilant; our experience has shown how rapidly Ebola can come back.
International community must invest in recovery
Since the outbreak, in the period of response and in contributing to the recovery, ActionAid has supported over 580,000 people in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But ActionAid alone can’t fix the problems caused by Ebola. The international community that eventually rallied to tackle the outbreak needs to invest now in the recovery, rebuilding the shattered health services and doing everything to get the economy back on its feet.
When the outbreak was at its peak and threatening to get worse, there was a great sense of fear that it might spread more widely, including to the UK. There was also a huge wave of human concern and compassion to those directly threatened in countries like Liberia. Just because we no longer face the fear of spread, we must not forget our concern for and solidarity with those who have been affected by it. Today’s news is a momentous moment, but it’s not the end of the Ebola crisis. We must make it the beginning of a new future for the people of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
How you can help people affected by Ebola
The best way to support families, communities and children in West Africa who have affected by Ebola is by sponsoring a child. Many children in rural areas missed out on months of school during the outbreak, because of quarantine. Through our child sponsorship programmes, we can make sure children get enough food, shelter and an education. We need more sponsors to help us do this.
Photos: Kate Holt, Sando Moore, Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid.