The new year comes with fresh hope of ending the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, as the daily report of new cases now is sometimes in the single digits instead of hundreds.
A two-week lockdown imposed at Christmas prohibited travel and large crowds, and those restrictions were extended Jan. 19 for another two weeks in hopes of ending the deadly epidemic by March. And more hope arrived with the announcement that schools – closed for eight months because of Ebola –will reopen in March.
United Methodists in Sierra Leone joined other citizens in observing a quiet Christmas and New Year’s under the lockdown, which is credited with the low rates of infection.
Bishop John K. Yambasu
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
‘God has a plan’
Speaking to radio and television audiences at an ecumenical New Year’s Eve watchnight service, United Methodist Bishop John Yambasu used the theme “God has a new plan for you” with a text from Jeremiah 29:10-15 to encourage hope for an end to Ebola in 2015 and the restoration of normal lives.
The bishop recalled that Sierra Leoneans had experienced suffering in recent years beginning with the civil strife from 1991-2002 which he called “one of the most violent, horrible and brutal civil wars” in Africa’s history.
He said that 12 years later, just as the country begins “to put the broken pieces of our shattered lives together again, we are faced with another terrible national crisis – the Ebola virus disease.”
“To say that Ebola has destroyed our nation is certainly an understatement. Each day when I return from work and see my two daughters and grandson sitting at home instead being at school, my heart bleeds. Our nation’s economy has been devastated. Our social life has been disrupted. Our educational system is in total shambles,” Yambasu said.
The bishop continued: “But Jeremiah has a message of hope for you. God has not forgotten us. God knows and understands our suffering. He sees the tears of bitterness and hopelessness in our eyes.”
A different Christmas
Olivia Fonnie, director of specialized ministry to children and assistant pastor at Charles Davies United Methodist Church, said television and radio stations provided good alternatives to the large gatherings normally held during the Christmas and New Year’s season.
“I have a sick patient in the hospital. He called to tell me how much he was moved by the prayer Bishop Yambasu offered during a particular program for Christian heads of churches service,” she said.
However, government restrictions were hard on people, Fonnie said.
“Keeping you in one place was too much to put up with especially against the backdrop of a festive season. You feel caged; you feel deprived; ... It was too much of a negative impact; not only for me but for the whole country,” Fonnie said.
But the Rev. Winston Ashcroft experienced one of his best holiday seasons ever.
Ashcroft, director of connectional ministries for the United Methodist Sierra Leone Conference, said for many, Christmas and New Year’s Day have become “noisy.”
“Christmas as we know it is a celebration that is quietly observed by the family. So, last year, many people really had quality time to spend with family, sharing the word of God with the family, sharing food and drinks and some information with the family,” he said.
Decline in new cases
The National Ebola Response Center, based in Freetown, reports daily on new cases, which have dropped into the single digits on some days. On Jan. 21, the center reported 11 new cases, and just seven new cases were reported Jan. 20.
The World Health Organization reported 549 new cases in the first 21 days of January, bringing the total number of Ebola cases in Sierra Leone to 10,340 since the beginning of the epidemic. WHO reports 3,145 deaths from Ebola in Sierra Leone.
Restrictions under the modified lockdown include closing shops and entertainment centers at 6 p.m. weekdays and from noon Saturday until Monday morning.
Numerous checkpoints are in place and people moving from one district to another are required to obtain a pass from the health ministry.
President Ernest Bai Koroma is visiting districts where the infection has been hard to contain and urging local authorities to come together and not politicize the outbreaks by under-reporting new cases.
“With Ebola, low figures do not matter; what matters is achieving zero new infection rates,” he said, reminding people that a single infected person brought Ebola into Sierra Leone.
“Now is the time to make the sacrifice in this last lap of the fight that will take us to zero,” Koroma stressed. He urged “supreme sacrifice” on everyone to work together.
The president also attributed the declining figures to a significant increase in capacity in the health sector – from a single lab in Kenema when the outbreak started in May to more than seven functional laboratories across the country with a combined capacity to test more than 1,000 samples a day.
“From a single doctor with expertise in this type of viral diseases, we now have many doctors and health workers with skills to tackle the outbreak. We have trained our own medical personnel with international support, and improved the skills of contact tracers, burial teams and call center operators,” Koroma recently said.