Ebola response–the situation in Liberia
An interview with The Salvation Army’s General Secretary in Liberia
Major Samuel Amponsah, a Salvation Army officer from Ghana has been general secretary (second-in-charge) of the Army’s Liberia Command since September 2013. He spoke to Linda Leigh, a staff writer from the Canada and Bermuda Territory, about The Salvation Army’s ongoing response to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Leigh: Please describe the situation in Liberia over the past 10 months and today.
Amponsah: The Ebola outbreak took place in March. It was the first of its kind and many people didn’t take precautions. They didn’t think it would last–that it would go away. Therefore, it spread from one country to another. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have a common border.
When Ebola arrived in the cities, the government asked people to minimize movement but by that time people had come with their sickness. Liberia was not prepared. Protective measures had not been put in place and the virus started killing people. In July/August, when The Salvation Army realized that the illness wasn’t going away and was killing people, we contacted International Headquarters (IHQ) and began our response. We gave out sanitizers and chemicals [for cleaning].
Today, locals say that 4,000 people have died in Liberia. We question if all deaths are due to Ebola or natural causes, because people won’t go to clinics out of fear of catching the disease. There are many uncertainties. The radio news says numbers are decreasing but other sources say Ebola is still killing people and people are still being admitted to clinics.
A number of parents have died, leaving their children as orphans and alone in homes. There is no one to care for them and they are very afraid.
People live in fear, afraid of contracting the virus. The Salvation Army is going into the hardest-hit communities to distribute food items. The distribution team is careful not to stay too close to the affected community, and people are invited to come and receive the items.
Is the situation similar in Sierra Leone, where The Salvation Army also has a presence?
The Salvation Army began its work in Sierra Leone in 2010 [overseen by the Liberia Command] and remains in three areas where we have newly commissioned officers. We haven’t begun to fully respond to the outbreak. When the crisis began in Sierra Leone the government required people to stay indoors for three days. No contact between people made a difference to the spread of the disease. Liberia didn’t have the same quarantine at the beginning. That’s why the death toll is high in Liberia.
In Sierra Leone we will provide food items such as oil, rice, sardines (canned fish) and beans.
What are the difficulties The Salvation Army has faced in responding to the epidemic?
There are highly infected communities where no one will go because of fear of contracting the sickness. Some communities are not open for people to respond. The need is great and our resources are limited. We rely on what is provided by the international Salvation Army.
The government in Liberia has required that schools be closed. Are there other closures? And how have church meetings/gatherings changed?
Apart from the schools some government departments are closed. Non-essential workers don’t go to work. Places with public gatherings are closed. Shops and malls are open but with restrictions and fewer people because everyone is cautious. Churches including The Salvation Army meet but are taking preventative measures. People don’t shake hands or touch [Ebola is contracted through direct contact]. There are buckets at the entrance full of water mixed with chlorine to wash your hands, because chlorine will kill the virus. They don’t use towels or tissues to dry their hands.
Attendance has gone down but we are grateful to meet to encourage each other.
What support is The Salvation Army currently offering?
At the beginning we offered preventative materials like sanitizers to kill the virus. Now our attention is focused on food and preventative garments for people working in clinics.
It’s not only The Salvation Army distributing food–other agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are because of the demand. Naturally, when there is demand, prices go up. Also, because of Ebola the influx of food is not easy. The airlines have curtailed movement. Before Ebola, a 25kg bag of rice sold for US$29. It sells now for US$40. Prices for almost everything have doubled.
What are The Salvation Army’s strengths?
We have a trained team on the ground. Two of our officers attended the Disaster Preparedness training session run by International Emergency Services in Nigeria in September 2013. Preventative measures are in place. We have coordinated support from IHQ, which is in regular contact, asking for input and giving guidance.
Most of the materials we use are accessible and purchased locally.
Can you share a story of individuals or families affected to help us better understand the gravity of the situation?
The corps sergeant-major (CSM) in Monrovia (the capital of Liberia) contracted the disease and passed away on Sunday, Oct. 26. He was the principal of The Salvation Army’s William Booth High School and an outstanding leader. This has devastated Salvationists. His wife, mother and children (aged 10, 7 and 6) have been quarantined in their house for 21 days. The Salvation Army keeps in touch with them by phone every hour. Three weeks before he knew he was sick he visited the education office at command headquarters. There is always a concern when people come here. We never know where they have been or if they have been touched by people infected with Ebola.
There is a woman in the community where the Army distributes food whose husband passed away from Ebola. He was the breadwinner for the family (including two children under age 10). She is a teacher and the schools are closed. When the schools are not in session, the teachers are not paid.
How many Salvation Army staff, officers and their families have contracted the virus?
Apart from the CSM we aren’t sure. There may be one or two others. It is difficult to collect information. We caution our staff and volunteers to leave food items at the door and call the home to let them know the items are there.
How has the epidemic impacted Salvation Army staff and volunteers?
Teachers from our 15 schools that are closed have provided health education. They are paid from school fees and when schools are closed they are affected. They have not been paid since August and the government doesn’t anticipate schools to reopen until January, provided Ebola ends.
We have a clinic that is closed. Workers have been without salary for three months. This has been a major blow. Volunteers and Salvationists are risking their lives to go into affected communities.
Many of the people who died have left behind children, meaning that large numbers are orphaned. These children will need to go to school and be helped with their basic welfare needs. We will organize assessments and responses when the outbreak is over.
Many communities need food items. We anticipate the need to be long-term and we will need IHQ support. We continue to attend United Nations meetings to discuss areas that need great attention. The meetings discuss who is doing what and which communities still need assistance.
The Salvation Army continues to distribute food and protective materials. We will look at how best to support orphans and hope to provide antibiotics to community clinics.
Going into the community is not easy. We use the phone as an opportunity to pray with people. We want them to know Jesus.
What support do you need from the international Salvation Army?
Food distribution and food items appear to be the major issues now because of the restrictions in movement of people and vehicles. We need support to fund the distribution of food. Sometimes we have to travel distances to get better prices.
How would you ask Salvationists and friends to pray for Liberia?
Pray that the people won’t contract the disease. Pray that the mindset of rural folks shifts so they understand the magnitude of the disease and put in place preventative measures. Pray for those affected–that the Lord will heal them. Pray for orphans and many families who have lost loved ones. Pray for our friends and partners. Pray for command headquarters and for protection in the midst of calamity.
Don’t forget about us!
Donations to The Salvation Army’s ongoing disaster relief work in Africa can be made online.
Based on a report by Liberia Command