Why Ebola survivors are suing Sierra Leone

The government cannot account for $14 million allocated to help survivors rebuild their lives.

November 29, 2014, should have been the best day of my life. I walked out of a sweltering, overcrowded treatment centre in Hastings, Sierra Leone, knowing that I was Ebola-free. I no longer had a death sentence hanging over me.

But the day quickly turned into a nightmare when I realised I could not return home.

Residents of my community feared the virus, and even worse, they feared me. I was a schoolteacher before contracting the virus, but once I became an “Ebola survivor”, nobody wanted to hire me. The government did not offer any support to help me build my life back either.

After accepting that I won’t be able to return to my old life, I decided to fight back against Ebola in every way that I can. I volunteered to help people who were facing the most harrowing experience of their lives. I held prayer groups, put on plays, and organised support groups for fellow Ebola survivors.

Today, I am the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors (SLAES), a 3,466-person organisation seeking to help thousands of people – survivors, orphans, widows and widowers – whose lives have been irreversibly affected by the deadly virus.

Our organisation recently announced its intention to join a lawsuit against the government of Sierra Leone in an international court for the mismanagement of the Ebola response and recovery effort, which led to more infections and unnecessary human suffering.

Where is the money?
On March 17, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone was over. However, the long-term effects of the virus are still lingering in our lives. Most survivors are still dealing with the medical, social and economic effects of contracting the Ebola virus.

Some survivors had miscarriages, others are living with severe joint pain. Some became deaf. Several survivors developed new symptoms in their eyes. When left untreated, the problems in the eyes can lead to severe uveitis, cataracts, and even blindness.

For example, Ebola survivor Mammy Isatu, a former petty trader, has gone completely blind because she could not afford to buy the medicine she needed to treat her eyes. I visited her three weeks ago in Mount Aureol, a neighbourhood in northern Freetown, and witnessed how her situation is getting worse by the day. Due to her condition, she is not able to work any more.

Her eldest son, who was the family’s main breadwinner, died of the virus. Like many other survivors, she is living on the brink. If she doesn’t receive the support she desperately needs, she may lose her life. Survivors have come together to raise money and are using their personal funds to support her as much as they can, but she still cannot afford to feed herself.

But it didn’t have to be this way.

Independent audits found that under Sierra Leone’s previous government, one-third of the money raised internationally to help fight the virus and support survivors, approximately $14 million, has not been accounted for. The audits also showed that the government awarded major Ebola-related contracts to businesses that have close personal ties to members of the administration – these contracts reek of corruption. Officials assured survivors they would provide free healthcare long ago, yet we are still waiting for them to deliver on their promises.

As survivors like Mammy Isatu still struggle to get the care they need, we need international donors and average Sierra Leoneans to start asking, “Where is the money?” Fourteen million dollars could have bought more hospital beds, more medicine, and more opportunities for survivors to get their old lives back.

If that money was used to help survivors, Mammy Isatu would still be able to see.

Just weeks ago, President Julius Maada Bio’s transition team  recommended that he settle  our case and launch an investigation into who is responsible for mismanaging funds during the Ebola crisis. SLAES could not agree more.

Because mismanagement of the Ebola funds was criminal, we believe that President Bio must determine who stole the Ebola funds, hold any perpetrators accountable through criminal penalties, and take steps to ensure that any stolen funds are returned to the government of Sierra Leone.

We also need the government to take additional steps to strengthen internal government procedures so that Sierra Leone’s government agencies are appropriately procuring contracts and spending national emergency funds. Sierra Leone should undertake a comprehensive review of what happened during and after the Ebola outbreak, using internationally recognised financial reporting standards. The findings of this review should be made public so we can all understand what happened over the last four years and take the necessary steps to fix it.

President Bio’s next moves could echo around the world if he chooses to take a bold step and tackle the issue of mismanagement of funds and corruption during a national emergency. In a time of emergency such as the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, the potential for theft and waste of emergency funds is higher than ever.

We all must hold our governments to higher standards to ensure they allocate donations and funds appropriately during moments of crisis.

For me, nearly four years after beating the deadly Ebola virus, the best day of my life is still to come. I will only feel truly happy and content when I see all my fellow Ebola survivors secure much-needed recovery support. Until then, I will keep fighting.

By Yusuf Kabba
Yusuf Kabba is President of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors.

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