March 2015: When the outbreak of Ebola was declared 12 months ago, no one really knew what a change this would bring about to the lives of people not only in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but globally as people struggled to understand the disease, its transmission, the risks, the devastation, the emotion.
From the day the outbreak was declared in Guinea, Plan International started supporting community awareness raising on the disease and offering practical hygiene advice on how to reduce risk of transmission.
There was a lot then we didn’t know about Ebola, but we did know that good hygiene practices, such as not touching sick or dead people, were critically important.
Over the course of the response knowledge grew, rumours spread, fear came and went and came again, families were wiped out, communities quarantined, farms not tended to, health centres locked down, basic services stopped and social cohesion and norms challenged like never before.
During this time, Plan International remained in the worst affected countries and took this journey into the unknown with the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Caring for children
We worked with health and communication experts to develop appropriate messaging to help families and communities to stop themselves getting infected with Ebola. We set up temporary care centres for children who had been orphaned, abandoned or stigmatised because of Ebola and provided them with food, care and a safe space. We worked and continue to work with these children to reunite them with family or foster parents who can provide them with a safe and caring home.
Seeing that awareness raising alone was only part of the solution. Plan International also set up localised community care centres, close to communities with high incidences of the disease. The purpose – to isolate people with symptoms quickly so as to reduce the risk of infecting others from staying at home. Also to offer them food and water to maintain their strength to fight the virus.
People in these centres were tested and transferred to appropriate centres based on test results. Ensuring food, water, education, replacement of essential household items infected with the Ebola virus were also key elements of Plan International’s response.
Of course we did not do this alone, but with the support of local and international partners, community groups, young people who are at the heart of our response, donors, governments and the general public who contributed so much to our response.
The risk remains
Now we are seeing Ebola cases go down, fear lifting, discussions on recovery taking place, people beginning to move around, schools reopening and a slow, but cautious return to normal life. Having been part of Plan International’s response from the outset, this is great to see. But, it is also worrying. I am worried that many now think the crisis is over. As long as we still have cases of Ebola, this crisis is very much alive and the risk of increasing victims a reality.
Over 10,000 people have now died from Ebola and almost 25,000 people have been infected by the disease. However, weekly incidences have fallen to just over 100, with Liberia having no new cases for the past two weeks. Of course a country needs to have no new cases for 42 days to be declared Ebola-free. Given that Liberia borders Guinea and Sierra Leone, even if it passes the 42 day milestone, it could always ‘import’ a case or two.
Keeping all of the above in mind, Plan International’s response is evolving just as the crisis evolves. We will continue to invest in good health systems, knowledge and skills so the gains made to date fighting Ebola will not be lost, but are embedded in each country for this and any future crisis.
We are investing in water, sanitation and hygiene interventions in schools so the risk of falling ill is minimised in the learning environment. Health monitoring is being supported also in schools so symptomatic children can be removed and receive proper testing and treatment.
Teacher training on psychosocial care for children is being provided so teachers can help the thousands of children who have witnessed loss, death and pain. Orphaned children will continue to be supported, with the goal to get those without parents into a stable and caring family structure.
Families need support before the rains come
Support to families to regain their livelihoods will be a critical part of the next phase of Plan International’s response. Families have survived on very little since the outbreak. Many markets have been closed, farms have not been tended to, businesses shut down, loans taken with no means of repayment, savings used and livestock consumed or sold.
For these families to get back on their feet, we cannot focus on business as usual. We need timely and effective injections of cash and in-kind goods into families so they can bounce back from the crisis, and rebuild their livelihoods and lives. With the rainy season approaching, the timing for this is now.
Ebola has taught us many things. We have learned that something that starts off in one small village can become a global threat. We have learned that fear will not beat Ebola, but bravery and action will. We have learned that decades of traditions, even when faced with death, are not easy to stop. We have learned that human emotion can never be more greatly tested than when you know that by helping a loved one you can get sick, die, infect others and possibly cause them to die. How could a parent not comfort a child in pain?
From all this emotion and risk, heroes have emerged. People who gave first and considered themselves second. Plan International staff amongst them.