This update from Network for Africa is different from the others we publish. This time, we are making a special appeal for funds for our work in Sierra Leone, in West Africa.
The Ministry of Health and Sanitation in Sierra Leone was so impressed by the work of our local partner during the 2014 Ebola outbreak that they have made our team part of their critical response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The problem is that Sierra Leone is a desperately poor country, and there is no funding available from the authorities. The Ministry is relying on nine groups like ours to deliver public health education in the absence of government staff. The Ebola epidemic left almost four thousand people dead in Sierra Leone, including many brave doctors and nurses: it also nearly broke an already fragile health system. The country had not recovered from Ebola when COVID-19 arrived. The Financial Times reported at the start of the pandemic that there was one ventilator for a population of seven and a half million.
How can the work continue?
Our team has special permission to travel around the district and continue their work during times of lockdown and curfew. Despite the damage to its health system during Ebola, Sierra Leone learned from its experiences in 2014. It closed its airport as early as March 22, and had the first of two three-day national lockdowns in early April. This enabled health workers to go from village to village, testing people and tracing. Masks have been mandatory since mid-April.
Our team use motorbikes to travel, meaning they can avoid public transportation. They conduct public health education sessions, enforcing social distancing and the wearing of masks. They dispel rumours and spread accurate information about the virus and how to prevent infection. They continue to hold self-help group meetings and psychosocial support to a community that had barely recovered from the trauma of Ebola.
The Health Ministry chose our team because of its track record training local leaders, teachers, health workers and officials – the best and most trusted local messengers. We are the only mental health organization, but our local credibility means we are also providing what is called child protection in the humanitarian aid world. Please help us to do this important work during this critical time.
A day in the life, during a pandemic
Here is an excerpt from a conversation with Marie, one of our team as she reflected on her work during the Ebola epidemic:
“Each day, I worked fourteen hours or more, wearing protective gear that made me incredibly hot. Sometimes, I would have to find a new family for a child whose parents had just that moment died of Ebola. I had to make sure orphans didn’t end up being exploited, put out on the streets selling water. When I got home each night, I would strip off all my clothes in the yard at the back of the house, putting them in bags until I got a moment to wash them. I’d take a long shower, scrubbing every inch of my skin. Even then, my husband wasn’t happy about me getting into his bed, so we slept separately for about a year. But we made it through OK, thank goodness.”
Why are we working in Sierra Leone?
Even before health structures were eroded by Ebola, Sierra Leone was a poor country with minimal mental health services. Ebola added stigma, trauma and poverty to existing stresses – burial procedures were imposed that conflicted with cultural customs, worsening grief. Poverty rose when quarantine prevented people from working, and misinformation fuelled stigma and social exclusion. People lost businesses, possessions, food, homes and family breadwinners. Mental health provision in Sierra Leone amounts to three psychiatrists – one of whom is semi-retired and one who works for the Army; 1 clinical psychologist in private practice; 19 mental health nurses who graduated in 2012, and 1 government psychiatric hospital where until 2018 patients were sometimes kept in chains (though this practice has now been abolished). Health workers have little or no mental health training.
Thanks to five generous donors, we have already raised £20,000 towards the total we need, which is £30,000.
- £7/$9 could pay for one mental health clinic, enabling people with mental illness to continue to receive support, diagnosis and medication from a mental health nurse during the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- £34/$44 could pay for a community member to be trained in recognising the signs and symptoms of mental illness as it becomes more prevalent during the pandemic, as well as Covid-19 prevention and the dispelling of misinformation and stigmatisation
- £200/$257 could pay for a forum for key stakeholders who work in parallel systems of care – religious leaders, chiefs, traditional healers – to increase dialogue and understanding of mental health, Covid-19 and the referrals process for both.
We know our supporters are facing their own challenges during this abnormal episode, but if you are able to support our work at this time, we thank you.Support Our Team In Sierra Leone