When Ebola Hits Home

I came across the story of a Sierra Leonean 8 year old boy whose father had died, most likely from Ebola, who called the national hotline in early November, and presumably is now the head of the household, overseeing five younger siblings.

Finding out your relatives have been orphaned on the six o' clock news is nothing short of surreal.

Most may remember an ITN news feature this October where 10 year old Joseph Munu and his siblings were left to the care of their aunt Zainab Munu- who also happens to be my aunt. To add to the deep misfortune, she is grieving from the loss of her husband to Ebola.

Unfortunately, stories like these are becoming more common. More extreme cases involve whole families dying from Ebola. My late grandmother's brother and his family is one such family- all 13 of them.

Yet one can hardly forget that many of these same children would have already undergone the trauma of civil war that beset Sierra Leone in the 90's and early 2000's. Many of them saw and experienced things that simply beg belief. Much older children would have seen the cutting of limbs, and family members seized to be murdered- often at the hands of 'child soldiers'.

And one should not forget the children who have lost parents due to curable and incurable diseases such as malaria and AIDS. The Ebola crisis is therefore only one of many battlefronts for orphans. The implications are hard-hitting.

I came across the story of a Sierra Leonean 8 year old boy whose father had died, most likely from Ebola, who called the national hotline in early November, and presumably is now the head of the household, overseeing five younger siblings.

Orphans are stigmatised for their link to Ebola and expected to fend for themselves as some members of their communities stay away from them and the homes in which these orphans' parents died. I am incredibly proud that my aunt Zainab has been brave enough to shelter her niece and nephews despite the financial fragility she faces without her late husbands' income.

I know there are more Sierra Leoneans who carry her strength and fortitude, giving these orphaned children the chance of a better life for . These are the unsung heroes of the crisis, who continue to embody the age old African proverb 'It takes a community to raise a child' in such fearful times.

There is simply no greater loss of love and security than in losing ones' guardians and this is reflected in what my Islamic faith teaches about orphans who are specially singled out as a set of individuals who deserve special love and attention, the Qu'ran states in Chapter 93 verse 9, "Treat not the orphan with harshness."

Thankfully we are seeing a stabilisation of Ebola in Liberia and Guinea, but with the World Health Organisation not having met their December 1st targets in lowering the number of cases and unsafe burials by 70%, the battle against Ebola is still at large. Efforts must continue and at a greater speed or we may find a whole generation of orphans in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Sierra Leone's Ministry for social welfare, gender and children's affairs estimates the number of orphans in the country at 2600, but UNICEF believes it could be more than 7,000. This is set to grow as the crisis continues, along with the need to support these orphans with the proper care they deserve.

I spoke to Mr Mohammed Sesay, Chairman and Founder of the charity Prince of Peace, a community development organisation dedicated to empowering ordinary people to become champions of their communities.

He told me the capacity in supporting orphans must also include mental health support as well as community counselling and on-going- monitoring and evaluation.

It might seem a trifle objective compared to the undergoing efforts to contain the virus, but if we are to truly battle the effects of Ebola on communities, care for orphans in places like Sierra Leone bears thinking about. If a child has survived Ebola and has been taken out of quarantining, we should ask ourselves the question, how has the experience traumatized the child? And what can be done to bring this child a sense of normality once again. And it's a question of whether international agencies and other organisations have the capacity to do this.

This is a crisis that goes far beyond covering stories of orphans or granting them food and water. Protection against on-going mental and physical effects caused by the crisis on orphans, and the task of assimilating healthy children into society after Ebola are issues that should be at the forefront of the minds of those offering humanitarian aid both in this part of West Africa and internationally to children like Joseph and his siblings.

Stories such as my aunt Zainab's and the orphan children she now calls her own show the the Ebola crisis is not just the spread of a fatal virus, or the spotlighting of under-resourced healthcare systems in my homeland Sierra Leone, but a crisis seen through the eyes of its 'living' victims- left behind to survive.

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