Ebola – All We Need to Do

All we need to do to make this work is restrict movement (into the chiefdom) and don’t touch.

Setting up checkpoint at chiefdom border.

Setting up checkpoint at chiefdom border.

These were Chief Caulker’s words to me two days after he launched his “break-the-chain-of-transmission” program to stop Ebola in Bumpeh Chiefdom. He spent the previous evening at one of the key checkpoints set up to control anyone trying to enter or leave the chiefdom on a drivable road. Additional checkpoints are being set up at strategic points for river traffic and frequented footpaths.

Chief was there until nearly midnight to personally observe checkpoint activity. And I need to boost morale, he said, so I stayed there late into the night.

Chief Caulker (blue sports suit) inspecting checkpoint.

Chief Caulker (blue sports suit) inspecting checkpoint.

The chiefdom has been under a government isolation order for a month with no traffic in or out except those with an authorized pass. Waterloo and Moyamba Junction are both market towns on the main highway now decimated by Ebola. Many there have family and personal connections in Bumpeh Chiefdom. You turn off the highway at either of these points to reach the chiefdom. Both towns have been the source of three cases of Ebola infected people fleeing quarantine there to chiefdom villages. Each incident was isolated and contained, but Bumpeh Chiefdom’s proximity puts it at risk of a bigger outbreak.

Army or police manned checkpoints on roads are supposed to stop all traffic without authorized passes, including any vehicle, motorbike or foot traffic. But borders are “porous,” as they say. “Lots of compromising going on,” Chief said. These are nice ways of saying people can pay or otherwise talk their way through.

Checkpoint night watch.

Checkpoint night watch.

This is why Chief Caulker has added his own chiefdom volunteers. Young men committed to their chiefdom and willing to sit up all night in a palm lean-to with a camp fire, and actually stop traffic without an official pass. Four trucks per day are allowed to bring supplies to Rotifunk.

A week later Chief Caulker said, the checkpoints are being very effective. The presence of checkpoint volunteers is making the army or police personnel do their jobs.  Traffic is finally being halted and turned away. Volunteers call in reports on cell phones.

The only problem, chief said, is that the police and army personnel are asking for food and ”incentives.” In the local vernacular, this means money and things like cigarettes, because they’re not being paid by the government, or payments are skipped. I’m not using donations the chiefdom received to fight Ebola to pay staff the government is responsible for, Chief said.

I’ve come to better understand all the petty corruption from police, army and other government employees, trying to extract small bribes from local people. When they don’t get paid, they still need to eat and support their families. They’re in effect imposing their own tax. If that’s all that’s at stake it’s one thing. But allowing Ebola infected people to pass through checkpoints during this crisis in inexcusable.

On the no touch side, one of the biggest sources of new Ebola infections have been traditional burials – now considered unsafe. People now understand (at least in Bumpeh Chiefdom) the need to report all deaths to first check for Ebola.

We’re having a good response on our side on reporting, Chief said. I got five cases of natural deaths reported to me last week I wouldn’t normally get. We need to know cause of death in each case. Swabs are taken for Ebola testing  by the community health officer.  There’s been a better response now on testing requests.

Local chiefdom burial teams have been organized and started doing burials under the supervision of official burial teams from the district capital, Moyamba. This includes proper use of personal protective equipment they received a few days ago that’s WHO funded. Teams have to undress and throw the PPE into the grave, chief said, so the supply won’t last for long. The first few burials will be supervised; then local teams are on their own. Bodies won’t be waiting two, three or more days for burial. Or be thrown in the river, as was recently done.

Let’s hope the chiefdom program to stop Ebola results in few Ebola burials to come, and new protective equipment isn’t in demand. So far, so good.

Sherbro Foundation is proud to be supporting Bumpeh Chiefdom in their program to break the chain of Ebola transmission with helping fund the checkpoint teams.

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