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Young volunteers with the Lunchboxgift initiative Young volunteers with the Lunchboxgift initiative Photo credit: Fatou Wurie

No medals for Sierra Leonean youth fighting Ebola

by Unisa Dizo-Conteh
17 April 2015

As cases of Ebola diminish and the end of this agony nears – people are beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. The 2000 British healthcare and military volunteers who went to Sierra Leone to fight the disease will receive an award. In Sierra Leone, the youth may not receive an award but they have played a key humanitarian role, risking their lives to save countless others.

Ebola’s widespread consequences

In excess of 10,000 people have been killed by the Ebola virus and almost 25,000 infected across West Africa. The worst-hit countries are Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described the recent crisis as the worst Ebola outbreak in human history. Peter Piot, who discovered Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, has said that the damage caused by the virus in West Africa is unprecedented.

Umu Kamara, leader of a village east of Freetown described the Ebola crisis as “worse than the war”. Indeed Kamara is right. At least during the war you would know fighters were coming by the sound of gunfire and barrage of bombardments. Ebola is an enemy you cannot see coming, making it more terrifying.

We appear to know the number of deaths caused by Ebola but the socio-economic consequences are unclear. Many analysts and international organisations have warned of the disastrous ramifications for the countries worst affected. For example, in Sierra Leone, the projected economic growth for 2014 has decreased from 11.3% to 4% in the wake of the crisis. Initial data from a World Bank mobile phone survey indicates that employment in urban areas has declined from 75% to 67%.

Ebola has also had a significant impact on the country’s culture and tradition. There is a longstanding customary practice for a deceased person to be washed and dressed in a marvellous outfit. On some occasions, the deceased is kissed during the funeral. For the bereaved, this is a mark of honour and respect. In this crisis, grieving families are prohibited from such practices as only burial teams, wearing personal protective equipment, are allowed to handle the dead. Some families may never know where their loved ones are buried. Although this is terrible for the bereaved families, these are necessary public health precautions.

But amidst all this hardship which has affected people across Sierra Leone, the group that will suffer the most beyond this immediate humanitarian crisis are probably the country’s children and young people. Over 30 percent of Sierra Leoneans are between the ages of 15 and 35, and together with children below the age of 15, they account for over 70 percent the population.

Since schools across the country closed in June 2014, there have been reports of an increase in the number of pregnant girls, who, following the reopening of schools in April, are barred from going back to class. Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher, has described the decision as denying girls who have experienced a high level of disadvantage the fundamental right to an education.

In addition to the educational impact, a recent report by Plan International has highlighted how the fallout from Ebola is likely to pose risks to the long-term health of children. In Sierra Leone, 70% of communities say that children are no longer being vaccinated as they were before the outbreak. Some parents are suspicious of vaccinations because of fears they spread Ebola. The epidemic has also had huge implications for the mental health of Sierra Leoneans. Theresa Betancourt, Director of Harvard’s Research Program on Children and Global Adversity, has described children’s experience of Ebola as a “massive trauma”.

Plan’s research also highlighted serious concerns over the welfare and protection of children. For instance, a large proportion of children, not just those orphaned by Ebola, are living in households where the provision of basic needs such as food is inadequate. Children are also increasingly concerned about crime and child labour.

To make matters worse, many children have to face all of these challenges alone. UK charity Street Child estimates that there are over 12,000 Ebola orphans in Sierra Leone alone. Ebola orphans face high levels of stigma and face severe risks, such as early marriage, hard labour and commercial sex work.

The humanitarian efforts and resilience of the youth

The youth have shown incredible resilience in the face of this crisis. All across the country, they have been involved in every facet of the fight against this unforgiving virus.

For instance, in Koinadugu, a northern district that took longer for Ebola to reach, the youth got together to prevent the spread of the virus ravaging the country. Without pay, the youth formed a taskforce and set up checkpoints, which provided water and soap for people to wash their hands. They identified people with the symptoms of the virus, such as vomiting and diarrhoea, who were then referred to the Ebola treatment centres.

In Freetown, United Sierra Leone, a group largely run by youth, have been going to difficult-to-reach areas, such as slums, to sensitise residents to precautionary measures they can take to prevent against being infected.

Young people from the Sierra Leonean diaspora have also joined the fight against Ebola. For example, they have sought to reduce the impact of quarantines, which have restricted the movement and distribution of food supplies and resulted in food shortages and higher prices. Diaspora organisations in the UK have been responding to these challenges with innovative solutions, particularly during the first lockdown in the country in September 2014. Lunchbox Gift, serves nutritious meals to vulnerable patients and staff at Ebola treatment centres, always striving to preserve their dignity. Its members, largely youth, play a vital role preparing and distributing food in Freetown. Mrs Memuna Janneh, founder and Executive Director of Lunchbox Gift said “these young people have risen to the challenge and are living proof that there is a lot of potential in Sierra Leone's youth.” She’s right.

But this is not the first time the youth have stepped up to the plate at a time of desperate need. Despite having suffered immensely during the decade-long civil war, Sierra Leone’s youth have contributed positively to peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts following the conflict.

In fighting against Ebola, the youth – once again – have played a remarkable role responding to a humanitarian crisis. Along with other actors such as the diaspora, they have effectively challenged the notion of the international community as the “saviour.”After much criticism, national governments and international agencies – the WHO in particular – have accepted responsibility for their insufficient preparedness and ineffective response to the crisis.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised medals to those British medics, soldiers, civil servants and aid workers that joined the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. The youths in Sierra Leone won’t be getting any medals. Most of them will try to return to a normal life. But life will not be normal anytime soon, even as the Ebola crisis comes to an end, given the many challenges that lie ahead. But hopefully they will be remembered and recognised for their heroic efforts and help pave the way for youth to shape responses to future disasters.

Unisa Dizo-Conteh is the former president of Young Leaders of Sierra Leone and an executive member of Sierra Leone UK Diaspora Ebola Response Taskforce (SLUKDERT).

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