Skip to main content

The normally busy streets of Freetown are deserted after Sierra Leone launched a three-day nationwide quarantine on Friday.Michael Duff/The Associated Press

No one knew what to expect. Sierra Leoneans were told to prepare. The government promised increased resources, more treatment beds and needed information. International donors and aid organizations scrambled to adapt. The World Health Organization said it was supportive and that a three-day lockdown would help. Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) opinions were largely negative, saying it would not contribute to the eradication of the Ebola virus disease. And opinion on the street was just as varied.

But it began Friday: an unprecedented nationwide shutdown that is meant to keep the six million people of this West African nation inside their homes for three days in an attempt to educate them about Ebola, find people afflicted by the virus and hopefully arrest its spread.

Here in the capital, all the shops along commercial streets were battened down and closed up. Normally bustling streets were empty. Police stood in groups watching blocked off roads and quiet neighbourhoods. Families gathered and watched movies, talked quietly and stayed on porches or indoors.

Some women cooked. Some men talked to their neighbours or listened to the radio. Children were subdued, and the capital city was hushed.

As I drove from one police checkpoint to the next, neighbourhoods were phantoms of what they normally are. Where I would normally see people gathered to talk Premier League Football, there were none. Where I would normally see women selling plantain and banana, there were none. Where the "dollar boys" – men who operate pocket foreign exchange services – hang out, there were none. It was spooky. But, it was also surreal.

It had rained all day Thursday. Heavy downpours known as "September rains" flooded roads and open gutters, subduing most shutdown preparations. But on the first day of the sensitization, it was sunny and warm. It was like the city had been cleansed of cars, bustle and people, leaving the remains of the city to bask in the sunlight.

But the undertones of the presence of the Ebola virus quickly darkened the day. I visited the Connaught Hospital in central Freetown late in the afternoon. Standing outside the gates of the entrance was Rosaline Momoh, the head matron. Idling noisily behind her was an ambulance with a hand-painted sign on the side that read: "Western Rural District." The driver, clad in plastic protective gear, sat waiting for nurses to direct him backward as an Ebola patient was brought out of the isolation unit/holding centre.

The hospital administrator described how eight patients had arrived that day. Two have been admitted as "suspected" cases of Ebola. Blood samples were taken and sent to a laboratory. The six others were sent home to monitor their own conditions, which are very similar to malaria. They will report back to the hospital on Day 2 of the shutdown. "We have no beds," Ms. Momoh said. "We hope to move some patients to another facility but for now we have no room. We have 19 beds and 19 patients."

The volunteer teams spread out across Freetown, and their findings just on the first day were grim. "We saw five dead bodies suspected of having Ebola in the eastern part of the city. One was a young child,"Alhassan Kamara, a project officer with Health For All Coalition, an NGO working on monitoring the sensitization campaign, said.

When the Sierra Leone government announced the national lockdown two weeks ago, local journalists, activists, businesspeople and some ex-pats on the ground rabidly criticized the proposed action. In response, government spokespeople took to the airwaves and quickly rebranded the shutdown as an ose-to-ose, or house-to-house, Ebola sensitization campaign." There was talk of shutting down the country for 21 days, the period of quarantine a suspected Ebola patient would undergo, but thankfully that idea fizzled. "We're just thankful it's only three days," said Mary Kamara, a single mother who cares for eight children. "We'll have to manage what we have."

Many people still thought it a waste of time and money, especially after the government announced the process would cost $1.3-million (U.S.). Others prepared by raising prices on basic necessities like rice, pepper and onions. Most sat and worried. "We live on the small money my auntie makes as a petty trader," said Isata Sesay, 16. "We won't have food if she can't sell." Markets were flooded with people trying to stockpile whatever they could get for the little money at hand.

Before they had to hole up at home, survival was on everyone's mind.

Ms. Kamara stressed over the many mouths she had to feed. Cyrilia Camara, 36, worried about food for her family. Nasuma Sherif would go without income from her small shop and was deciding what foodstuffs she would sell and which to hold onto. Kathleen Jalloh prayed she wouldn't get sick. Saviour Diallo, a taxi driver, was eager to give his small car a rest. Isha Sesay, 18, wanted to gather notebooks to practise her mathematics. Cylena Kamara was stretching wool to braid her hair. Sullivan Kallon was negotiating for bags of charcoal for his wife to cook with.

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma addressed the nation on Thursday evening over the largely state-run TV and radio broadcaster. "Our country is in the midst of a big trial," he began. "But by the grace of God, we shall overcome this Ebola outbreak."

His speech promised more treatment or holding facilities for patients suspected of having the virus, more ambulances, training healthcare workers, and providing for vulnerable children, the disabled community and street beggars. But for now, some in the government anticipate a 20-per-cent rise in the number of confirmed cases of Ebola as more people become aware of the sickness and sensitizers comb neighbourhoods asking about sick people and advising them to go to a hospital. It will take more than handwashing, sensitization and prayer to battle the Ebola virus. And it will probably take more than three days to get a grip on the future of this country.

Interact with The Globe