“Piles of bodies, overwhelmed medical personnel and exhausted burial teams” greeted Ebola teams from the capital upon visiting the eastern mining district of Kono, Sierra Leone, reports the Associated Press. With a spike in deaths blamed on dangerous traditional burial practices, the national government has imposed a two-week lockdown on the region.
While international attention has largely shifted elsewhere– in some part due to successes that have slowed the rapid spread of Ebola in neighboring Liberia and Guinea– the disease’s spread appears to have accelerated in Sierra Leone, particularly in remote regions into which a carrier had recently brought the Ebola virus.
In Kono, authorities found that 25 people had died within the five days before federal and World Health Organization authorities arrived, with a total of 87 bodies found within 11 days. The WHO explained that many who died had come into close contact with Ebola victims: “In 11 days, two teams buried 87 bodies, including a nurse, an ambulance driver, and a janitor who had been drafted into removing bodies piled up at the only area hospital.”
The virus has spread faster in Sierra Leone than Liberia or Guinea both because of its dense population in centers like Freetown and the population’s refusal to stop practicing traditional burials, which require contact with dead bodies. This was also a significant problem in Liberia, but months of campaigning by government officials appears to have finally worked, as the WHO announced that Liberia had met is quota of safe Ebola burials by December.
President Ernest Bai Koroma continues to broadcast messages against traditional burials, most recently reported this week as stating in public remarks, “We should stop all traditional practices for now, so that we will live to continue to practice them later.” The calls for individuals to halt risky behaviors has received significant backlash even in mass media. The nation’s largest newspaper, the Awareness Times, accused the government of trying to evade blame by pointing towards the “‘attitude” and ‘indiscipline’ and ‘lawlessness’ of Sierra Leone citizens” as a reason for Sierra Leone lagging behind its neighbors in Ebola response. Blaming the governments inaction, the editorial concludes that “the other explanation, that Sierra Leone citizens are more indisciplined and/or have attitudinal problems worse than Guineans and Liberians, actually rings hollow. Shamefully hollow in fact!”
In addition to the lockdown implemented in Kono, private charity groups are helping aid the residents there as they struggle to contain the disease. As with many west African areas, local Christian groups have pitched in. The Shalom Baptist Church “dispensed of millions of leones worth of food and non-food items to quarantined homes” to allow them to remain well-fed and equipped for two weeks without access to the rest of the country.