By Tulip Mazumdar
The current Ebola outbreak is the worst the world has ever seen. One reason it’s been able to spread so quickly is because of where it first emerged: in the porous remote border area between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
We have just made the journey by road from Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, to Guinea’s capital, Conakry, to see what impact the disease has had.
It’s 06:30 and we’re getting ready to leave our hotel. This journey usually takes four hours, but we’ve been warned to brace ourselves for a much longer trip thanks to the number of Ebola checkpoints that have now been set up. On the car radio I hear an advert about Ebola.
“Wow Vinta, you always have new facts on Ebola. They are so accurate, where do you get them?”
“I rely on the web pages of the ministry of health, WHO and EbolaFacts.com.”
As we drive through the city, the streets are bustling. Women sit in front of their stalls selling fruits and vegetables.
But on roundabouts and billboards lining the main Freetown-Waterloo highway, reminders of the outbreak are loud and clear. There are posters with warnings dotted everywhere. “ABC – Avoid Body Contact” proclaims one poster.
By 09:00 we reach our first checkpoint. Soldiers carrying two different guns stop us. They have rifles over their shoulders and thermos temperature guns in their hands. Lt Martin Tejan holds his temperature gun to my head. I am 36.6 degrees and I am safe to pass through.
“If you show more than 37.3, we will take you to the holding tent and ask you some more questions,” Lt Tejan says.
“Some people try and hide their sickness… some are trying to escape the city to go to their families to use traditional healers instead of going to medical centres here.”
Set back away from the road is a blue tarpaulin tent where very sick people are kept. Ambulances are supposed to take patients from here to a treatment centre within four hours. But the lieutenant says three people have died there while waiting for an ambulance.
By midday we arrive at Port Loko, where cases of Ebola have risen sharply in recent weeks. A government-imposed quarantine is in place, which means – in theory – that people living in the area aren’t allowed to leave the district. We don’t see anyone enforcing this though.
We stop off at a treatment centre which is still under construction.
“On the first day we had eight patients here,” Peter George, the doctor in charge, says.
“By the end of the week we were full. We are so busy here and need more international help.”
By lunchtime we are at our fifth Ebola checkpoint. The more sophisticated buckets of chlorine with taps have been replaced by ingenious makeshift wash bottles, which you “turn on” by pressing a stick with your foot, tipping the solution into your hands.
My temperature is taken again, and I’m allowed through.
When we reach the border, we are given a final temperature check and waved through. A soldier wearing sunglasses has a cigarette in his mouth and a rifle on his shoulder. “Bonjour madam, bienvenue Guinee,” he says with a smile.
Welcome to Guinea
The change as we enter Guinea is immediate. The tarmac road turns into a bumpy red dirt track. We pass women with trays of eggs balanced perfectly on their heads, and men sitting in their roadside shops selling everything from bed frames to iron gates. People seem much more wary of our team.
Another difference is that here, most people speak French. Hardly anyone speaks English. Guinea is where the outbreak started. A two-year-old boy called Emile, now known as patient zero, was the first person to become infected.
He died last December but it wasn’t until March that experts realised what had happened and declared an outbreak. Some 50 miles into the country, we come across a small Ebola holding centre.
We wander inside. It’s the first time we’ve been asked to wash our hands and have our temperatures checked since we arrived in Guinea. It’s eerily quiet. There are around 15 staff, but no patients. I ask the doctor in charge why it is so quiet.
“Some people prefer to die in the village rather than come here to get help,” he says.
‘Ebola isn’t real’
We continue our journey through the dusty winding roads. The landscape is stunning, lush green forest blanketed over mountains that fill the horizon. A couple of hours from the capital we stop at a roadside market in a town called Maferiah.
Children are running around laughing, women are gossiping as they sell their watermelons, pineapples and oranges. But when we start asking them about Ebola, none of them want to talk. After asking a seven or eight people, a couple of men agree to chat to us.
“I don’t know about Ebola,” says one of the men. “I have never seen someone killed by it. For me it doesn’t exist.”
The second man echoes his friend’s comments,
“We don’t have any Ebola here. I don’t know what is killing all these people – but Ebola is not real.”
As we head into the city to find our hotel, one thing remains very clear: West Africa has far to go before Ebola can finally be stamped out.