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Sierra Leone begins 3-day lockdown to fight Ebola

A man held a daughter showing Ebola symptoms at a center in Monrovia, Liberia, Friday.
A man held a daughter showing Ebola symptoms at a center in Monrovia, Liberia, Friday. AHMED JALLANZO/EPA

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — One of the most stringent anti-Ebola measures to date began here Friday as Sierra Leone imposed a three-day national lockdown, ordering people off the streets and into their homes in an effort to stamp out the deadly disease.

Police officers patrolled the streets of the densely populated capital, telling stragglers to go home and stay indoors. Volunteers in bright jerseys prepared to go house-to-house throughout the country to warn people about Ebola’s dangers and to root out those who might be infected but were staying in hiding.

The normally busy streets of Freetown were empty Friday morning, stores were closed, and pedestrians were rare on the main thoroughfares.

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The country’s president, justifying the extraordinary move in a radio address Thursday night, suggested Sierra Leone was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the disease.

“Some of the things we are asking you to do are difficult, but life is better than these difficulties,” President Ernest Bai Koroma said.

More than 200 new cases of Ebola have been reported in Sierra Leone in the past week, according to the World Health Organization, with transmission described as particularly high in the capital; nearly 40 percent of cases in the country were identified in the three weeks preceding Sept. 14; and more than 560 people have died in Sierra Leone, about one-fifth of the total from this outbreak.

The campaign that began here Friday reflected the desperation of West African governments — and in particular those of the three hardest-hit countries, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — as they struggle with an epidemic that the health authorities have warned is showing no signs of slowing down.

No country has attempted anything on the scale of what is being tried in Sierra Leone, where more than 20,000 volunteers enlisted to help identify households where the authorities suspect people infected with the Ebola virus are hiding.

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Yet there were plenty of indications Friday that the campaign promised more than it could initially deliver in this country of 6 million people, at least in the capital.

Well into the morning, the house-to-house visits had yet to begin in Kroo Bay, a densely populated warren of iron-roof shanties where roughly 14,000 people live, despite officials saying they would start at dawn.

The neighborhood, a perennial home of cholera outbreaks, sits in a sea of muddy lanes and open sewers in which pigs forage. The police cruised into Kroo Bay on a pickup truck, yelling at lingering residents to go indoors and warning of imprisonment; people simply stared at the officers and continued lingering as the police drove off.

“The policeman is doing his thing, and I am doing my thing,” said Kerfala Koroma, 22, a building contractor who said that he was waiting for his breakfast. “We can’t even afford something to eat on a normal day. How can we get something now?” (Koroma is not related to Sierra Leone’s president.)

Residents insisted there had been no cases of Ebola in Kroo Bay, although there were loud complaints from some that the bodies of victims had been dumped in a nearby cemetery.

As the morning wore on, the house-to-house volunteers began to assemble in a bare-bones community center, with several noting pointedly that they were not being paid. Others stressed the daunting challenge of covering thousands of households with a team of only 50.

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By 9 a.m., with two hours of daylight already gone, the volunteers were still being given their marching orders.

“We told them to come at 6:30, but naturally, in this part of the world, people are not too time-cautious,” Sima Conteh, the volunteers’ coordinator, said with a grin. Elsewhere in town, groups of volunteers could be seen sitting on the sidewalk.

Yet some volunteers expressed hope that their efforts would not be wasted.

“You have the chance to get the people with the disease out,” said Emmanuel Cole, a 33-year-old taxi driver who said he had refused to take any passengers since the epidemic began, for fear of becoming infected.

“The country is not moving now. We have got to help the country now,” Cole said. “It is not a normal time.”