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Ebola-hit West African nations alert over coronavirus

Ineke Mules
March 18, 2020

Memories of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are still fresh in the minds of survivors, as concern mounts over a potential coronavirus outbreak.

Liberia Monrovia Ebola
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Jallanzo

People in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are ramping up preparations for a potential coronavirus outbreak, with many worried they will see a repeat of the chaos and misinformation associated with the 2014 – 2016 Ebola outbreak.

Read more: Coronavirus: The lessons to learn from Ebola

Although the virus has not yet hit the continent as hard as other parts of the world such as Europe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern over the vulnerability of resource-poor countries with weak health systems. The 2014 – 2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa highlighted serious flaws in emergency response systems, with the epidemic ultimately claiming over 11,000 lives by the time the outbreak was officially declared over.

A banner warns against Ebola in Sierra Leone
A widespread awareness campaign against Ebola played a key role in defeating the virus in the three West African nationsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Marrier d'Unienville

Liberians preparing for the worst

In Liberia, authorities have ordered schools to close for at least a week, with at least two confirmed cases of the new coronavirus as of March 18. The second case was identified as a domestic worker in the home of the government official, Nathanial Blama who was the first recorded case in the country after returning from Switzerland. Blama was allegedly suspended from his position as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency after refusing mandatory quarantine, however Blama disputes this.

In communities across the country, memories of the deadly Ebola virus, which killed 4,800, are still strong in people's minds. Prior to the outbreak in 2014, Liberia's health system was still struggling to recover from the civil war which ended in 2003, with only 50 doctors for a population of over 4 million. Teacher Ruby Martine told DW she is already preparing for the worst.

Read more: Africa takes measures against COVID-19

"You notice I have my gates locked right now," she said, "You don't know who has the virus, because the people we are depending on to help us during the Ebola crisis can't even help us now because they too have the same problem."

Businessman Peter Walker is also concerned about Liberia's ability to cope with another outbreak.

"We are very much afraid with what is unfolding now," he told DW. "Ebola came to this country – it started with one case and spread everywhere…We don't have any means to manage this."

Misinformation spreads in Guinea

As the epicentre of the West Africa Ebola outbreak, Guinea is no stranger to the importance of containment and tracing. But, much like with the Ebola outbreak, misinformation is a key point of concern among residents here, with many left confused as to the symptoms of coronavirus and how exactly it spreads.

"I have heard that coronavirus is more dangerous than Ebola," student Fode Soumah told DW. "It is a sickness that can be contracted through bodily heat, so we must therefore take precautions."

Scientists say Coronavirus, or COVID-19 – is spread mainly from person-to-person between those who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets produced when a person coughs or sneezes – it was first identified in Wuhan, China in late 2019. It did not reach sub-Saharan Africa until March 9, when the first case was identified in Burkina Faso.

Guinea has so far only recorded one confirmed case of coronavirus – on March 13, a Belgian national who works with the European Union (EU) delegation in Guinea tested positive for the virus.

A man washing hands
One of the key preventive measures against Coronavirus is by thoroughly washing hands with soap under running waterImage: Imago Images/M. Westermann

Technician Loua Etienne is relieved that Guinea has not identified any more cases, but he is urging the government to not remain complacent.

"It's good that we only have one case so far," he told DW. "But I am asking the state to take immediate precautions to stop the virus in Guinea. It is a very bad illness."

Sierra Leone steps up measures

Unlike neighboring Guinea and Liberia, Sierra Leone has yet to record a single case of the coronavirus. However, authorities are already stepping up measures to prevent any possible spread of the virus, drawing on lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak.

President Julius Maada Bio has activated procedures which were originally put in place to fight the Ebola virus, including banning all government officials from travelling abroad and limiting public gatherings to a maximum of 100 people.

In a surprise move, Bio also invited members of the opposition to join in efforts to fight the spread of the disease.

A woman carries her baby inside a hospital in Liberia
The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic decimated the health sectors of the affected countriesImage: Getty Images/J. Moore

During Sierra Leone's Ebola outbreak, health officials gained a greater understanding of the importance of proper health education, the distribution of correct information and raising awareness while limiting panic as much as possible.

The Minister of Information and Communication Mohamed Swarray said the country is taking the potential of a coronavirus outbreak seriously and is determined to draw on valuable experience gained during the Ebola crisis.

"The government is raising awareness so that every Sierra Leonean gets to know about this coronavirus," he said. "So we are promoting the culture of social distancing, regular hand washing with soap and clean water and avoiding crowded places."

Evelyn Kpadeh, Murtala Kamara and Karim Kamara contributed to this article.