“I suppose you heard the news.”
It’s Momoh Konte calling from Sierra Leone. The phone line is bad. But it’s clear he’s talking about the news from Koinadugu, his home district in the mountainous north that held the title of Sierra Leone’s last region untouched by Ebola.
As the outbreak burned across West Africa, infecting thousands and spreading fear, Koinadugu was a national point of pride. No Ebola. It was a refuge for calm.
But now the news: Ebola had reached Koinadugu at last.
The fall was hard. It was fast. Two cases were discovered in late October, but the virus seemed contained. Then, dozens more cases were discovered in the district’s remote Nieni chiefdom. Last week, a United Nations report labeled Koinadugu an Ebola hotspot, with nearly 60 cases. The virus seems to be raging throughout Sierra Leone, which has seen its numbers of new infections bypass those of Liberia, where the caseload appears to be slowing.
“We had a very good plan,” Konte says now.
It was. And for months, it worked.
Konte devised it. A wealthy businessman living in Washington, D.C., Konte left in June to travel to Kabala, the district capital, where he grew up. He was armed with plans to defend his district at all costs. He pledged regular donations for the district’s anti-Ebola efforts. He organized an Ebola task force. He convinced local leaders to pass a series of tough new laws, including a strict quarantine around the district that restricted the flow of people. He used his own money to offset the loss of incomes to farmers and organized a revolving loan fund to help pay for supplies.
Ebola slipped into Sierra Leone in late May. It spread throughout the summer. By September, only one of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts remained Ebola-free. Koinadugu is the nation’s largest district in land size, home to 265,000 people. It is poor, relying on farming and gold mines.
Now, Konte is organizing a new fight. He wants Koinadugu to be declared Ebola-free again. He says the cases have been limited to the Nieni chiefdom. At first, 158 people were being monitored because they had close contact with Ebola patients. That number has now dropped to 97. He says they will be watched for the next three weeks for symptoms.
He says he has hired 200 former military guards to enforce a quarantine around the chiefdom. He is paying a series of “secret agents” to report to him signs of secret burials and people hiding Ebola patients. He also has hired counselors for towns with Ebola cases and contract tracers who speak the local languages.
Last week, four homes where Ebola sufferers lived were burned to the ground by the local Ebola task force. Konte said it was necessary. Dead bodies had been discovered inside. He didn’t trust that the structures could be disinfected.
Konte says he is devising new plans for the fight against Ebola. He says he is not giving up.
On the phone, he sounds tired.
“People just want this thing to end,” Konte said. “They just want this thing to end.”