Security forces blocked off a seaside slum in Liberia’s capital yesterday, stepping up the government’s fight to stop the spread of Ebola but unnerving residents and sparking a protest.
In central Monrovia there were few cars or people about as nervous residents stayed inside after president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered West Point sealed off and imposed a nighttime curfew.
She said the authorities have so far not been able to curtail the spread of Ebola in the face of defiance of their recommendations.
Ms Sirleaf also ordered gathering places including cinemas and nightclubs shut, and put Dolo Town, 30 miles south of the capital, under quarantine.
“These measures are meant to save lives,” she said on Tuesday.
Ebola has killed at least 1,350 of the more than 2,200 people it has affected in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the outbreak, according to World Health Organisation figures.
Liberia has the highest death toll and the number of cases there are rising the fastest.
Fear and tension are running high in the capital, especially in places like West Point where there is substantial mistrust of authority.
Dead bodies are dumped daily in the streets by relatives who fear infection. Fearful residents call a government hotline to ask that they be removed, but they sometimes remain outside for hours or days.
Yesterday, riot police and soldiers were deployed to block anyone from entering or leaving West Point, which occupies a peninsula where the Mesurado River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Few roads go into the area, and a major road runs along the base of the peninsula, serving as a barrier between the neighbourhood and the rest of Monrovia.
A coastguard vessel also patrolled the waters around the half-mile long peninsula.
A woman who called into a local radio station’s breakfast programme said she was stuck in a traffic jam because there was a protest in West Point by disgruntled youths opposed to the quarantine.
Residents looted an Ebola screening centre over the weekend, accusing the government of bringing sick people from all over the city to their neighbourhood.
While Ms Sirleaf blamed the disease’s continued spread on people who have hidden the sick or defied orders against touching dead bodies, many Liberians feel that their government is not doing enough to protect them.
Resident Richard Kieh said the community was in “disarray” following the arrival of troops yesterday morning.
“Prices of things have been doubled here,” he added.
The current outbreak is currently the most severe in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but the United Nations health agency said that there were encouraging signs that the tide was beginning to turn in Guinea.
There is also hope that Nigeria has managed to contain the disease to only a few cases.
Nigeria’s health minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, said on Tuesday that a fifth person had died of the disease.
All of Nigeria’s reported cases so far have been people who had direct contact with a Liberian-American man who was already infected when he flew into the country.