The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is spreading at an alarming rate. The death toll rose Monday to 900 when the World Health Organization reported 61 new deaths across four countries.
Sierra Leone is one of the nations hardest-hit by the outbreak. The country has reported more than 600 Ebola cases since late May.
In response, Sierra Leone’s president declared a state of emergency Wednesday and announced a series of hard-line measures designed to stop the spread of the disease. Among them was a 21-day quarantine on all homes exposed to the virus. Hundreds of military members were deployed Monday to enforce the quarantine.
But when I visited one of these homes in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, the atmosphere appeared relaxed. The home was guarded by only two police officers. People seemed to come and go as they please.
Sule Koroma and his family were placed under quarantine after his sister Saudatu Koroma died of Ebola in late July. She was the first resident in Freetown to test positive for Ebola. And her family triggered a manhunt when they forcibly took Saudatu out of the city’s hospital.
Police eventually found Saudatu Koroma seeking treatment from a traditional healer. The police sent her to an Ebola clinic in Kenema because there wasn’t one in Freetown — a city with more than a million people.
When we arrived at Sule Koroma’s home on Sunday, the two police officers stood by idly as the family chatted with neighbors. Family members wandered in and out of the house, as they wished. And at least three guests were inside the quarantined home.
The family believes it was a witch that killed Saudatu. Her parents said they held her body in their arms as an ambulance carried her to the clinic in Kenema. So they may have caught Ebola, although so far they have no symptoms.
Despite the state of emergency in Sierra Leone, the streets around the Koroma household have changed very little in the past few weeks. A few people are wearing rubber gloves as a precaution. And more people are beginning to acknowledge that Ebola may, after all, be a real disease. But for the most part, life continues as normal around here.
To learn more about the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, listen to NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton’s report on All Things Considered.