Catholic Voices

By Patrick Hayes

Today I learned that a friend, his wife, and his eldest boy died of Ebola. Peter Kanu was from Masiaka in Sierra Leone and he was the catechist for his Roman Catholic parish there. A man of great faith and happiness, he took care of people, often at his own expense. He died in poverty, but he was very rich. He once gave me a fine pineapple, which he grew in his garden, and I offered to share it with him. No, he said, it was just for me.

When I first arrived in Sierra Leone, where I was a visiting scholar in 2010, a priest took me to see the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Diocese of Freetown. It was a courtesy call, but for me it was an interesting introduction to the country. Sitting in his air-conditioned office, we talked about the national elections. Then, the power cut out and we were left in the dark. You see, he said, this little inconvenience is a symptom of something greater and if our politicians are unable to stabilize the country, there will be chaos.

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Stability is precious and fleeting in Sierra Leone, where fear of Ebola is now rampant. The disease has had some insidious repercussions, but instability may be the worst. Every day shows the fragility of the government. There are measures of this.

For average Sierra Leoneans, the timing of the Ebola crisis could not be worse. It is the rainy season and, thanks to government-sanctioned quarantines, crop harvests are at a low. The price of food has skyrocketed and forced people to go into the bush for food and firewood. Quarantined areas such as Waterloo, about 20 miles east of Freetown, have seen severe food shortages, and the United Nations Food Program has had to step in to provide rice to thousands of residents there, many of whom were queuing up shoulder-to-shoulder in public areas — precisely the kind of gathering a quarantine is meant to prevent. Add to this the further dependence on the world community for survival and the demoralization of the people takes deeper root.

Economic forces are also jeopardizing national stability. Growth rates — in some sectors topping 15 percent in investments in the last few years — have been obliterated. London Mining, one of the key contracts secured by the Sierra Leonean government during this period, has announced it will be going into bankruptcy. The extractives industry is not what it used to be and stock for the London-based company tumbled dramatically in the last year as the price of iron ore declined. As a result, the company is reneging on a covenant with the people of Sierra Leone for thousands of jobs at its mine in Marampa and a needed injection of tax revenue.

When young people are unemployed and desperate, mischief occurs. In the southeastern city of Bo, for instance, crime — too often violent crime — has been rising. With police now occupied in responding to calls from infected households or keeping the curious away from dead bodies, they cannot monitor the city as before. Other irresponsible behavior has been reported in the Pujehun district on the southern border with Liberia. Contact tracers there have been called “ghosts” because they collect salaries without inspecting suspected households. Still other schemes have families paying off health workers and burial teams to issue death certificates that falsely identify the deceased as something other than an Ebola victim. The stigma is often too great for families to bear.

Agriculture is also taking a hit. Forbes has reported that 5,000 small farmers who would ordinarily sell their produce to Africa Felix, a juice manufacturer, have been stymied because of tolls levied at “health check points” along major roads. Jonathan Shafer, managing director of Africa Felix, has noted that the Ebola scare has prompted his chief operating officer and his chief technician to flee Sierra Leone. They had no plan to return.

Investors in these kinds of businesses have panicked — so much so that the World Bank’s predictions for 2015 put revenue losses in the billions of dollars. Its estimates for “low Ebola” to “high Ebola” range from $1.6 billion to $25.2 billion, depending upon the ability to stem the spread of the disease by early next year. According to Kaifala Marah, Sierra Leone’s finance minister, “every gain that we have made has been lost.”

Reviving the engine of development is often at the mercy of the central entry points to Sierra Leone — Lungi Airport and the port in Freetown. Cancellation of flights to and from Sierra Leone by some countries has troubled the burgeoning tourism industry. The country’s pristine beaches are now empty. Moving in massive relief aid to Freetown and the nation’s interior has necessarily crowded out commercial transports.

Education — primary, secondary, and tertiary — has ceased. A new school term that should have started weeks ago has been halted indefinitely. UNICEF reports that 108,000 students who should have sat for their secondary school exams have missed them. The Ministry of Education uses the radio to reach younger children with lessons that can be engaged at home, but often villages do not have access to a radio signal (or radios) or students’ parents are illiterate and do not place a high value on learning. Just as it was during Sierra Leone’s civil war, a lack of access to the classroom retards development — both in traditional math and reading skills and things like basic hygiene education. College students are frustrated, too. For those who have reached the culmination of their studies and who have been selected as scholarship winners to earn graduate degrees in places like China, South Korea, and Italy, not only is it difficult to obtain a visa but there is no money to help with plane fare.

Among the unseen burdens on Sierra Leoneans, Liberians, and Guineans is a strain on those working outside these countries who send funds to their homeland. Family members who have lost breadwinners have placed inordinate demands on expatriates to increase their contributions. Of course, those working in the diaspora have to pay for their own living expenses, too, and feel the pressure of loved ones back home who are pinched by rising inflation. Ebola thus has both economic and psychological burdens associated with it. No matter how hard they work, many expatriates carry the guilt of not being able to help those left behind.

For their part, churches have performed admirably in the face of Ebola’s ravages. The Anglican Diocese of Freetown recently supplied land to a children’s hospital east of the capital city of Freetown for an isolation unit. Bishop Thomas Wilson had been holding the land in reserve, but the national need has been so great, the diocese believed it had a Christian duty to arrange transfer. It joins other Christian bodies, such as Caritas, World Hope International, and the Healey International Relief Foundation, in setting up health facilities and moving urgent medical supplies and foodstuffs to those areas of the country that lack capacity or are under quarantine.

Already there is talk of a shortage of beds and body bags in treatment centers across West Africa, and more than one reporter has latched on to the idea that if you sit outside a center long enough, some infected person is bound to show up only to be turned away. News at eleven. The reports on the death toll will continue, and the agitation of the population from this tinderbox will also grow. Attacking Ebola at its source — by funding, by personnel, by equipment — will be a boon to stability. Otherwise, anarchy will ensue and a massive global pandemic will be the result.

West African nations that have vested interests in seeing an end to Ebola are also joining forces, but more needs to be done by nations in the developed world to bring about normalcy for the affected populations. The Most Rev. Daniel Yinkah Sarfo, Primate of West Africa, issued a recent statement encouraging “Anglican Churches or Christian Churches the world over to express their solidarity by observing one Sunday as Ebola Sunday to pray and mobilize resources for the affected areas in the subregion or West Africa. Now Ebola is at war against humanity; the world must act now to stop Ebola.”

Patrick J. Hayes is archivist for the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorists and a former visiting scholar in religion at the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone.

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Image by Leasmhar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons • http://is.gd/Zpkf2O

Ebola in Sierra Leone

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