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My Ebola experience

In June 2014, Mango register member Margaret Otim found herself in the midst of a rapidly escalating global health crisis. Here she shares her extraordinary account of experiencing the Ebola emergency response firsthand.

Two weeks into my annual leave in Uganda in June 2014, I decided to finally check my emails just to see if there were any urgent issues that needed my attention.  That was when I saw an email from our Country Director directing that our field office in Kailahun to suspend all field activities and ‘non essential staff’ to stay home until further notice.  These staff were not to visit any of the other field offices or come to the Country Office in Freetown (Kailahun is the border town with Guinea with porous borders). This was mid-June and there were already a few cases of Ebola in Kailahun district, eastern Sierra Leone.  I frowned, though not frightened or scared because from my experience of Ebola outbreak in my home town of Gulu in Northern Uganda, it would take not more than 3 months for the spread of the virus to be brought under control and life would continue normally! Even when some of my colleagues decided to leave Sierra Leone in July, when the virus had spread to the next neighbouring town, I was still confident that the Ebola virus won’t spread to other towns, let alone reaching the capital city, Freetown, where I live.

Since hand washing and social mobilization are key in reducing the spread of Ebola, my organization immediately put in some resources to support the government in its efforts to stem the spread of Ebola.  Our operation was now moving towards emergency response, hence the more reason I needed to stay on.  However, the situation became so stressful when it became apparent that the spread of Ebola could not be controlled anymore without support from international partners.  Every morning, our national staff would report of cases of entire family perishing or dead bodies not collected by the burial team. This was devastating and I was more than determined to leave the country at the time when almost all commercial flights were already suspended and was extremely expensive to fly out of Sierra Leone.

To make matters worse, the doctors and nurses were dying from the Ebola and the government ordered all private hospitals to close; and that is when it dawned on me that I’m literally cut off from my family and the rest of the world! And at this point, I became so scared and afraid of what might happen in case I fell ill.  

My family was equally worried about me and begged me to leave the country but I assured them that I was okay and I’d immediately let them know when it became necessary that I leave the country.  Since my family already had the experience of Ebola, they knew that the chance of contracting the virus is minimal if I was not directly involved with the patients, but I knew that they were scared because the news from the media was not encouraging.

The final test came one Saturday when I saw a dead body by the roadside while driving along the main road, awaiting collection by the Ebola burial team. I was shaken and angry that the Ebola pandemic has over-run the country and quietly asked myself if my continued stay in Sierra Leone was of any value at all!  Eventually, my organization declared Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea as Level 1 emergencies which means it became a global responsibility and I immediately knew in my heart that I needed to be part of the emergency response because the national staff didn’t have any experience in emergencies, including many of the program staff.  I immediately got immersed in the emergency response ensuring that, for example, the beds purchased for the Community Care Centre actually reached the destination in Port Loko district, northern Sierra Leone.

One of the first things I did was to organize a short training for senior managers in financial management in emergencies, and thanks to Mango, the Training for finance trainers skills acquired during the training I attended in June 2013 was finally put to use and the participants, for the first time enjoyed a participatory training without a Power Point presentation! Now, I’m glad I stayed on because I lived the experience which is very different from the conventional emergencies where you can plan your intervention.  With Ebola emergency response, priorities change almost every day and most times decisions need to be made instantly otherwise lives would be lost.

It’s indeed an experience of a lifetime.