The global pandemic is bringing to light long-term deficiencies in smaller countries struggling to control coronavirus. Energy resources, for example, are essential to help countries like Sierra Leone respond and recover from Covid-19. Despite bringing mini power grids to health facilities several years ago, many are still operating off temperamental generators and lack the necessary funds to access more reliable power.
Sierra Leone managed to slow the spread of coronavirus early on thanks to health strategies learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. They quickly employed practices such as testing, quarantining, and contact tracing. They closed crowded markets and business centers, set up hand washing stations, distributed masks, and abandoned public transportation. The country is reporting under 100 total covid deaths. While that seems like a small number, based on population, their fatality rate parallels the US.
Covid-19 is far from contained and a large percentage of the population remains vulnerable. There is a significant threat hanging over the region where the majority of people lack access to reliable electricity and safe, clean water. For many rural communities who share latrines and water pumps, and lack basic hygiene supplies like soap, the outbreak is far from over.
The threat of asymptomatic patients carrying this disease to rural communities challenges the ability to break the chain of transmission. For a country comprised of a younger generation, many, too, are unconcerned about social distancing and wearing masks. For those who lived through Ebola, Covid, quite simply, doesn't seem as threatening.
But the reality is Sierra Leone lacks the funds and resources necessary to properly protect its healthcare workers and stock its health centers. Despite receiving donated ventilators from abroad, they lack the trained technicians to operate the machines and frequent and prolonged blackouts disrupt vital lifesaving power. Health facilities lack protective gear, they are running out of beds, they can't afford gas for emergency vehicles to transport patients, and they don't have reliable electricity to care for patients properly. Some health workers report not receiving a paycheck, which is causing essential workers to simply not show up for work. This impacts not only care for compromised covid patients, but all health needs including well visits and maternal care.
Energy access affects nearly all Sierra Leoneans weekly. Less than between 15-20% of the population has access to reliable electricity. Of that number 90% live in the capital city of Freetown. Less than 2% of the population in rural communities has access to power. Some homes only have power a few hours a week. Lights are generated through kerosene, battery powered (or solar) lamps and candles.
Hellen Gelband, previously on the board of BfW, recently purchased and shipped 150 solar lights to help the community of Lunsar in Sierra Leone. Because our shipping schedule was impacted by shutdowns related to Covid-19, Hellen was able to connect with Working Bikes in Chicago who was sending their first container this spring/summer to Village Bicycle Project in Sierra Leone. The project manager there, Karim Kamara had requested the lights to help schools, businesses, students, and most importantly the Lunsar Health Center. The request came even before the pandemic struck. The town of Lunsar has been without power for over a year.
Health centers rely on electricity for lighting, ventilation, cleaning, refrigeration, vaccines, surgery, ventilators...many key factors needed to help covid patients survive and recover. These are the same components needed to help protect essential workers and keep everyone safe. Karim reports that many nurses had been using their phones as flashlights to work at night, especially in the maternity ward.
Improving energy access countrywide will be critical to recovery efforts moving out of the coronavirus pandemic. Most immediately health centers will need the ability to keep covid vaccines refrigerated once they are developed and available. Access to energy could also help spark economic and social development in a country that has been struggling for more than a decade to overcome the aftermath of a devastating civil war. The Ebola crisis brought some resources to the country, but poverty and food scarcity continue to hold back progress.