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20.03.2020 Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone braces as coronavirus spreads through West Africa

By Kelvin Lewis in Freetown - RFI
© Kelvin Lewis
LISTEN MAR 20, 2020
© Kelvin Lewis

“The best time to deal with a crisis is well ahead of that crisis,” Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio told journalists on Thursday. But his declaration came a day after he said on national television that it was no longer a question of 'whether' the coronavirus will come to Sierra Leone, but 'when'.

Sierra Leone recovered from the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak with 14,124 infections and 3,956 confirmed deaths. Taking no chances with the novel coronavirus, the government has in the last few days issued a raft of “Corona Enhanced Measures” to prepare for the 'when'.

These include suspension of overseas travel by government officials, a ban on public gatherings of more than 100 people, military deployment at airport and land borders, a ban on all sporting events, quarantine for all passengers coming from countries with over 200 cases, and frequent hand washing.

On Wednesday, a Japanese family of four was denied entry into Sierra Leone after authorities were notified that one of them was coughing on board a Kenya Airways flight and appeared symptomatic.

The following day the transport ministry issued a 72-hour notice to all airlines to stop flights to the country, effective 21 March, except emergency medical flights.

Test facilities
Health Minister Prof. Alpha Wurie said: “There is vigilance but not fear.”

He noted that before the Covid-19 outbreak, Sierra Leone was one of only two countries in Africa with facilities to test for the virus: a P3-Lab built by the Chinese during the Ebola outbreak.

He revealed that 3 testing sites have been set up with the capacity to do 40 tests a day and a well-equipped, 30-bed isolation unit at the 34 Military Hospital. If need be, Wurie said, a 100-bed isolation centre can be quickly set up at the China Friendship Hospital in Jui.

Chinese Ambassador Hu Zhangliang announced that Beijing was donating 1,000 testing kits, 1,000 surgical masks, 1,000 medical gloves, 500 N95 respirators, 500 sets of protective gowns, 200 medical goggles, and a 50kva generator.

On the economic front, Finance Minister Jacob Saffa projected that economic growth would drop to 3.8 percent – down from forecasts of 5.1 percent. The effects will be wide-reaching with job cuts already seen in the tourism industry.

Saffa said Sierra Leone has sufficient reserves of imports that could sustain the country for 100 days without any support. However, he was quick to say authorities were in discussion with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to see what relief was available to them.

Locally, he said they will be looking at tax breaks, tax deferments and other measures to help businesses survive.

Even with all of this, President Bio told journalists: “At this time we do not see reason for panic or lock down. But things can change very fast and we will respond to these rapid changes robustly, up to declaring a state of emergency, to protect public health and safety.”

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