People become fearful of visiting health facilities as coronavirus rumours circulate.

Sierra Leone was later than most countries in Africa to experience its first cases of Covid-19. Though the virus itself did not arrive in the country until March 31st, rumours and fears spread among communities well before the country’s first confirmed case.

As happened during the Ebola outbreak from 2014-2016, this pandemic has led to rumours and misinformation that leave some people fearful of visiting healthcare facilities, says Doctors Without Borders (MSF). This could have a devastating effect on children as, at 105 deaths per 1,000 live births, Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world.

Memories of Ebola mean adopting new hygiene measures to reduce the spread of a pandemic is nothing new for people in Sierra Leone. However, as during Ebola, rumours can spread easily and this can lead to a fear of visiting health facilities.

“Some of the health issues we face in our village are fever and headaches, but we are afraid of going to the hospital,” says Wata, a mother of five living in the village of Bomboma, Kenema District.

“We are afraid because if the ambulances come they will say you have coronavirus. If one of my children was to become sick I would go and buy drugs from the peddler because I don’t want to go to the hospital where I could be tested positive for corona. We fear that if we are told we have corona we will die.”

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In Kenema District, MSF runs the 63-bed Hangha hospital, providing emergency secondary healthcare to children under five. MSF also supports primary healthcare at three Ministry of Health and Sanitation Community Health Centres (CHCs) in Largo, Hangha and Nekabu.

MSF outreach teams are also delivering healthcare directly in communities, as well as health promotion teams who can make referrals for people they identify in need of treatment.

In January and February, 80% of people referred by MSF health promoters visited a CHC afterwards, but in March and April, that number fell to just 27% and 40% respectively.

These numbers have particularly concerning implications for children suffering from malaria, malnutrition or diarrhoea, conditions that are easily treatable if intervention is early but that become deadly in the absence or delay of medical care.

sierra leone hospitalDoctors working at Connaught Hospital in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Source: CC 2015

“During Ebola, the fatality rate was very high and most people who were referred to health facilities did not come back home. That’s when rumours started as people believed there was something going on at healthcare facilities, and that healthcare workers were killing people to get money,” remembers Tamba Magnus Aruna Health Promotion Manager in Gorama Mende and Wandor who also worked with MSF during the Ebola outbreak.

“People in these villages do not have radio reception so they rely on information from friends and their communities, in these conditions rumours can spread easily.”

Recently there was a rumour that a group of people were travelling around and injecting people with Covid-19, under the cover of providing vaccinations, MSF says. People stopped bringing their children for their routine immunisations.

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MSF held meetings with leaders and representatives of the community to explain that the rumour was false and that vaccinations were important to protect children, and also explained how Covid-19 is really transmitted. Immunisation rates increased again after this intervention.

In early June, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved the disbursement of US$143m to Sierra Leone to support the authorities’ response to the pandemic.

It said that Covid-19 is taking a heavy toll on Sierra Leone’s economy, jeopardising hard-won gains since the Ebola health crisis.

The Sierra Leonean authorities are taking decisive and welcome actions to contain the pandemic and its socio-economic impact, the IMF added.

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Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin: 

West Africa: Ebola Crisis
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 51, Issue 8

Sierra Leone: Pandemic Politics
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 57, Issue 5

Somalia: Covid-19 Hampers Progress
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 57, Issue 5

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