Why Sierra Leone Literally Had to Cancel Christmas

While only about a quarter of people in Sierra Leone are Christian, Christmas is typically joyfully celebrated with friends, families and communities in much of the country. This holiday season, however will be different.

There will be no Christmas in Sierra Leone this year. At least not officially. Sierra Leone has now surpassed Liberia’s Ebola crisis, with 70% of all new global Ebola infections in the last 30 days (and over half of the overall 18,000 confirmed cases since the beginning of the crisis.) While the ebola epidemic is on the decline in Liberia, with 1,319 new infections in the last three weeks alone, the epidemic is out of control in Sierra Leone. Out of an abundance of caution, Sierra Leone authorities have decided to ban all public gatherings around Christmas and New Year. The head of the Ebola response unit, Palo Conteh, said that military personnel would be deployed to ensure any public gatherings are broken up and people sent home. The Kono district, bordering Guinea has also just been placed on a 2 week lockdown, following the discovery of bodies piled up at the only hospital there  (the Sierra Leone government denies the claims, but nevertheless moved forward with the lockdown.)

Why is Sierra Leone having a hard time containing the outbreak? According to Bruce Aylward, the head of Ebola response at the WHO, Sierra Leone hasn’t experienced “shock” around Ebola the same way Liberians did, for example. The crisis in Liberia – and in Monrovia, the capital, in particular – reached a fever pitch in mid-August following the botched quarantine of one of the poorest parts of the city. There were riots. A young boy was killed by authorities. Bodies were piling in the streets. People were shocked, and behaviors changed – Ebola is REAL, was the resounding cry. “You don’t want to see that kind of thing drive public awareness”, said Aylward, “but it has an impact very, very fast. People changed behaviours in Monrovia – bang! Like that.”

Meanwhile, the arrival of the dry season in West Africa carries mixed blessings. As the rains taper off, roads are becoming increasingly accessible, and aid workers will be able to more effectively and efficiently respond to humanitarian and medical needs. But the improvement in the transportation links across the region also means that there will be increased travel, and potentially further outbreaks in new communities.

Worryingly, almost 10% of Sierra Leone’s 120 doctors have died of Ebola, leaving the country’s healthcare system in a weakened state. Emergency response personnel – nurses, burial teams – have been striking because of the lack of danger pay they were promised. Sierra Leone cannot afford to lose any more of its medical personnel, already stretched incredibly thin in the current crisis. Authorities in Sierra Leone are hoping that this strategic lockdown at a critical time in the outbreak – with other countries seeing rates of infection decrease – will help stem the tide.