Sierra Leone’s low number of COVID deaths is the result of lessons the country learnt during the Ebola crisis, a priest who ministered during outbreaks of both viruses has revealed.
So far, only 121 people have died during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 3,590 deaths from Ebola between 2014 and 2016.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Peter Konteh, director of Caritas in the capital Freetown, said a number of restrictions used during the country’s Ebola epidemic have helped prevent a repeat of the earlier tragedy.
Father Konteh said: “Among the measures quickly taken was the confinement of infected people and the quarantine of people with whom they had been in contact.”
Sierra Leone was also one of the first nations to impose strict controls on air travellers, quarantining new arrivals.
He added: “With Ebola, it was much harder to raise awareness in the population since many did not believe in the virus and died by not obeying safety measures.
“Things are different now with COVID-19 – if you tell people to wear a mask, they listen because they know the consequences.”
But Father Konteh spoke out against the inequalities in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: “We need a global solution… vaccines are going to rich countries and rich people, not to everybody.”
Father Konteh added: “The ultimate message is that poor people are going to die.”
In Sierra Leone only 0.5 percent of the population have been fully vaccinated.
Last month, the country received consignments of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, donated by COVAX, and the Sinopharm vaccine, via a bilateral arrangement with the Chinese government.
The priest expressed regret that, “The worldwide scientific research that was done for COVID-19 was not done for Ebola, especially since it was contained to a particular area, our region.”
The priest stressed that Ebola had been more virulent: “If a family member has coronavirus they can survive, with Ebola it was much harder. We saw entire families die, including a family of 27.”
Father Konteh said one of the hardest moments of the Ebola epidemic was when one of his parish catechists fell ill.
When a group of them went to the man’s home to see how he was, the catechist’s eight-year-old daughter came out to greet him because, she said, her mother and father “were asleep”.
“The girl put out her hand, but they couldn’t shake it because they knew it was very contagious.
“I have had nightmares about that moment. She was unable to understand. We helped her as best we could, bringing water, food… We called an ambulance, but they were already dead.”
Father Konteh thanked ACN: “I cannot end without expressing my sincere thanks to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and its benefactors for their support and solidarity.
“Beyond the financial support, we feel that we are a family in faith. People pray for us in different parts of the world.”
ACN has supported priests in Sierra Leone with Mass stipends.
He added: “Amid the difficulties, we know that people are praying for us and helping Sierra Leone.”