SIERRA Leone has declared a national lockdown of at least three days in the north of the country in an attempt to contain the Ebola epidemic.
People observed a sombre Christmas in their homes yesterday after the government banned traditionally boisterous holiday celebrations to prevent the spread of Ebola in the most badly affected country.
Small groups of Christians in formal attire were permitted to attend church, but the family gatherings, beach parties, concerts and dancing that usually accompany the holiday were banned.
Police patrolled the capital Freetown’s twisting streets and manned temperature check points to watch for symptoms of the fever. On the radio, musicians who would normally be performing at live concerts played Ebola awareness jingles. Alie Kamara, resident minister for the Northern Region, said that most public gatherings would be cancelled.
“Muslims and Christians are not allowed to hold services in mosques and churches throughout the lockdown except for Christians on Christmas Day”, he said.
No unauthorised vehicles would be allowed to operate “except those officially assigned to Ebola-related assignments,” he added.
Kadija Kargbo, a cleaner in Freetown, said: “We want to avoid contact because of this deadly disease. It’s necessary but I am not really happy. Normally we have a lot of fun with family and friends.”
At a Red Cross treatment centre in the eastern city of Kenema, a small group of patients gathered around a cassette player listening to Christmas carols, said Jestina Boyle, an assistant with the Red Cross.
“Some are sitting and listening and those who are too weak can hear it from their beds,” said Ms Boyle by telephone before doing her morning round to visit the sick. “I will sing gospel for them. I will give them encouraging words and tell them not to lose hope.”
The centre held a small concert for patients earlier this week.
With more than 9,000 cases, Sierra Leone now accounts for nearly half of the known cases of Ebola in this year’s West African outbreak.
More than 7,500 people have died from the outbreak in West Africa so far, the Word Health Organisation says, with Sierra Leone the worst hit. Neighbouring Liberia and Guinea have also been badly hit.
Sierra Leoneans have a reputation for partying in the face of hardship and bars were often heaving during successive rebel incursions into the capital during more than a decade of civil war that ended in 2002.
“People know about Ebola but we are worried that we’ve had it so long that they normalise the situation and party,” said OB Sisay, director of the situation room at the National Ebola Response Centre. He said police had received instructions to break up gatherings and arrest the organisers.
Sierra Leone has been in a state of emergency since July.
The outbreak began a year ago in the West African country of Guinea, but only gained international attention in early 2014.