Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"You're not stopping Ebola. You're just stopping fun!"

     A lot has happened in the past week. As I mentioned before, the Regional Director for West Africa visited our country program. Last Wednesday we had a big dinner at the CR's house where we discussed the possibility of creating a "Survivor Camp" where Ebola survivors can go after recovering to get support for a few months. We also talked about how the government wants to reopen schools soon. Yesterday I found out that the plan is to reopen on March 16th so that students who haven't been in school for 7 months can sit for the GCSE exams. I'm sure that'll go well. I do think that reopening schools fairly soon (definitely not mid-March though) may be feasible for older students, but not for younger students who can't keep their grubby little hands off each other. We'll see what happens.
     I also learned how they make coffee in Sierra Leone. This was not very enjoyable for me since the mere smell of coffee disgusts me, but it was actually a cool process. The woman making the coffee roasted the beans over fire, crushed them and then did a bunch of stuff that I can't really explain other than to say that she poured things, stirred things and lit incense. There are three separate rounds of coffee drinking so it's a time consuming ordeal. If you're visiting someone's home and you ask for tea, it will be taken as a sign that you are in a hurry to leave. If you ask for coffee, they'll know that you're not in a hurry and have time to stay and socialize.

     The following evening there was a reception in honor of the RD. It was a public health workers and delicious food, almost non-stop Ebola talk and a keynote speech by the Minister of Health. It's clear that some of the people who have been here for awhile are really ready for all the restrictions to be relaxed. My favorite quote of the night on this topic..."You're not stopping Ebola. You're just stopping fun!" If someone said that in the Suites back at PC, that would have been worthy of a spot on the quote board. Apparently Freetown's night life was pretty crazy before Ebola and people are ready to get back to normal. Apart from there being handwashing stations all over the place and having your temperature checked a lot, restaurants and stores are closed after 6pm, bars, clubs and schools are closed indefinitely and you're not allowed to have gatherings on Lumley Beach (the main beach in Freetown which used to be packed all the time). It doesn't leave very much to do and locals and expats alike are getting restless. But the restrictions are in place for a reason and seeing people, particularly expat NGO health workers, hugging or shaking hands all the time is stressful. I'll admit that I did shake someone's hand the other day, but it was just one time. Oops.
     There is, however, one gaping hole in the restrictions. While all the places I mentioned above are closed, churches are still open. And they've never been more full. In terms of faith, there are pretty much two responses people have in times of crisis -- they turn to God or they turn away from Him. In Sierra Leone, it would appear that the people have very much embraced faith in the face of Ebola. While it would be nice to think that people are flocking to churches for spiritual nourishment (and I'm sure plenty of people are going for that reason...religion has always been important in SL), I'm certain that the sudden increase in churchgoers is also tied to the fact that going to church is really the only way they can socialize in large groups. So basically the other restrictions are pointless if you're going to keep churches open. Either the churches need to be closed too or all the other restrictions (apart from closing clubs...grinding with a bunch of random, sweaty people seems like a bad idea) need to be lifted.
     On Sunday we spent the afternoon and evening at The Hub Hotel. Different hotels are bases for different NGO's...the Radisson (I finally got to go to the Radisson for dinner last night and it's seriously swanky. It was like being in a totally different country) is swarming with CDC employees and The Hub is primarily UN workers. The place was really nice. We had great food and I got to swim in this awesome pool. I was randomly told that I can't be a fiscal Republican and work for an NGO which made me laugh. I didn't tell the guy that I'm also quite conservative on many social issues...that would've just been too much for him. I also played squash for the first time ever. While I was waiting to play, multiple people walked past me off the court dripping with sweat which I desperately tried to avoid touching. Because Ebola. Obviously. But it was fun and I was glad to put my intense competitiveness back in action.

     I'll also give you a quick update about work because I know my public health friends are more interested in that than in anything else. Last week we had a meeting with World Vision, during which I was given the task of creating all the forms (vehicle log, maintenance and accident report forms, decontamination forms, etc.) that will be kept in every vehicle in our fleet. Now that I've done that, I'm working with a guy from World Vision to create a database containing all the information relevant to our indicators. Once it's finished, I'll be going out into the field to train everyone on how to use it. I'm also getting involved in our Social Mobilization program which is a collaboration with IsraAid and Caritas. The aim of the program is to change behavior so that people stop unsafe burial practices. I'll be working to create something like an instructional manual for behavior change. We don't want our workers to have to follow a script when they go into the field and lead discussions or other sessions, but they need to have an idea of what kinds of things to talk about and how to handle certain situations. Once the manual is done, I'll be going out into the field to help oversee implementation. I may also be going into the field on Friday to deal with the logistics of where each pair of workers is going and when which is essentially exactly what I did in Kenya.
     For those of you not checking the NERC website religiously, there were 62 new confirmed cases in the 7 days prior to February 21st. I thought we might come in just under 60 new cases, but close enough. It's better than the 74 new cases from the week before! Unfortunately we're already at 48 new cases over the past four days so we will likely see an increase this week which will be pretty disappointing. Apparently there has been a big increase in the number of cases in Bombali so hopefully we can help get that under control soon!
     Overall, I finally feel like I'm really settling in. Work is busy, but good. I'm excited to get involved in the Social Mobilization program even though I know it's going to make me super busy. It's a good thing I don't stress easily. At least not about things like this. I also really love our fun, relaxing weekends. I sometimes have to work on weekends, but now that I know I may have to do that I'm less annoyed about it than I was when it first happened. Honestly, you really need the weekends to recover because the work week is intense (although I'd probably feel the same way even if I wasn't working in a country with active Ebola transmission). I think we're going to the beach this weekend and it's going to be great!

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