S. Leoneans fined for handshakes, hiding Ebola patients

FREETOWN – With the spread of Ebola showing no signs of abating, many communities across Sierra Leone have decided to take the fight against the deadly virus into their own hands.

"We have instituted bylaws that discourage people from [unhygienic] cultural and traditional practices that have been condemned by authorities in order to end Ebola," Pa Alimamy Bongo, section chief of the Rokupa community in capital Freetown's east end, told The Anadolu Agency.

"So for now, if we catch any member of our community shaking hands, we will levy a fine of 250,000 leone ($50)," he said.

"In fact, even an attempt to shake hands is tantamount to a fine of 100,000 leone [roughly $20]," he added.

The Rokupa community, where most of the community lives in wharves, is highly congested and densely populated.

"Hardly a day goes that we don't have a positive case of Ebola in the community," said Bongo.

While official figures are unavailable, Bongo puts the number of people living in the community at some 6,000.

In recent months, Ebola – a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure – has killed 8,235 people, mostly in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

In Sierra Leone alone, the virus has claimed a total of 2,943 lives to date.

Chief Bongo said the virus had found its way into his community through a pregnant woman.

"The woman fell ill when she arrived here. She was secretly attended to by some other women who said she was an elder of a traditional women's secret society that carries out female genital mutilation," he recalled.

"The woman died and her swab result later tested positive of Ebola," said the chief. "After this, we began having rapid cases of Ebola in the community."

-Quarantined-

A house-to-house search carried out by young people in the community – with the support of social mobilization officials from the country's National Ebola Response Center – found over 40 sick people in the community, most of whom later tested positive for Ebola.

Rokupa currently has about 30 homes under quarantine.

Chief Bongo said fines of 500,000 leone (roughly $100) had been levied on the relatives of sick people for failing to report ailing family members to the authorities via a government hotline.

"We expect everybody now not to keep any sick person in their homes, but report to '117' [a government hotline] or even call us [directly]," he told AA. "We [the police] can inform government health workers."

"But if we find a sick person at any home… the owner of the house will be fined 500,000 leone," the local chief warned.

"We also expect members of the community to report to community elders before accepting new visitors in their homes. Failure to do so will lead to fines of 500,000 leone," he added.

In order to enforce these new bylaws, youths of the community have been mobilized to serve as surveillance officers as part of a "Watch Yu Neba" campaign, which literally translates to "Watch your neighbor."

"We will fine anyone who fails to report a breach of the bylaws after witnessing one," Simeon Modupe Brown, a community youth leader, told AA.

He blamed locals for the spread of the virus.

"People are really stubborn; even after a lot of sensitization from the authorities, we are still finding sick people in homes," Brown fumed. "But these new bylaws have helped us a lot."

"People are now starting to stop their bad practices. If only our elders can maintain these bylaws, we will be able to eradicate Ebola here," Brown believes.

President Ernest Koroma has recently been travelling across the country as part of a social mobilization drive aimed at drumming up community involvement in the fight against Ebola.

At meetings with community leaders, he often admonishes them to take personal responsibility for breaking the chain of virus transmission by introducing bylaws that people will adhere to at the community level.

Chief Bongo, for his part, has appealed to the government for stepped-up support for the people of his community.

He said a chronic lack of sufficient food supplies continued to pose a challenge to homes under quarantine.

"People in quarantined homes complain of insufficient food supplies from the authorities," the chief told AA.

Even those members of the community not in quarantined homes were struggling to put food on the table, Bongo lamented.

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