Taking a look across our partners around the world who are all going through the coronavirus pandemic along with us, we expected to find hardship and heartache. The communities we serve are already at risk. Students struggle to stay in school, farmers rely on subsistence agriculture to feed their families, access to healthcare and hospitals comes at great distance and cost, and coastal communities count on tourism dollars to carry them through the year. The list of challenges abounds and now continues to grow as the world shuts down.
Sierra Leone is no newcomer to adversity. Twenty years into this century, they have suffered a civil war, Ebola epidemic, and most recently catastrophic mudslides. They are young, poor, and vulnerable. They have minimal resources and a weakened health system. Rural communities are cut off from hospitals, general communication, and medical and hygiene supplies. But Sierra Leoneans are fighters. They are survivors.
Karim Kamara is the program manager of Village Bicycle Project in Sierra Leone; and like many others, he remembers the Ebola response like it was yesterday. Too many men and women his age share similar stories of lost family members. They recall the slow response led to the spread of the disease which claimed nearly half of those infected.
Two weeks ago, before the first case of COVID-19 was even detected within their borders, the government issued a year long state of emergency similar to the response during Ebola. They closed off land borders and mobilized a response team. A week ago Veronica Buckets, used to wash and sanitize hands, started popping up outside businesses in the capital city of Freetown. Transportation began shifting from urban transit services to bikes, where public contact was minimal.
This is when Karim jumped into action. Through a generous donation from BfW mega-supporter and previous board member Hellen Gelband, Karim was able to purchase nearly 100 of these hand washing stations that he distributed to seven communities surrounding Freetown. He mobilized a team to help deliver these water buckets by bicycle, quickly reaching the more remote villages. They also delivered soap, gloves, and valuable information about coronavirus symptoms and how the virus spreads.
Two members of Karim's team can speak from experience, they are the only ones in their families that survived Ebola in 2014-15. Abdul lost all 22 members of his family. When he goes into villages and speaks about the importance of staying healthy, washing hands, and quarantining anyone showing symptoms people listen. They are scared, but when Abdul shares his experience it helps lessen confusion and brings some calm to these communities.
This past weekend the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. The government and health professionals immediately identified those individuals and anyone they came in contact with, isolated them, and issued a three day lock down in an effort to stem the spread. The country is listening. The lack of communication, rumors, and misguided information hurt them during the Ebola outbreak. They are now cautious about following preventative measures as they watch news of this pandemic affecting the entire world.
Currently, Sierra Leone has one of the lowest cases of COVID-19 reported; they are by far the least affected Bikes for the World partner to date...when it comes to coronavirus. For this struggling nation that was one of the poorest countries in the world BEFORE COVID-19, how they come out on the other side is yet to be determined. The summer months coming up are some of the hardest to endure as food scarcity becomes a serious problem. Many families rely on imported rice to survive. Markets are now closed. The borders are closed. Food insecurity is happening now with no end in sight.
Bikes for the World is also currently closed. But as our partners focus their attention on feeding their families and keeping their communities safe and healthy, now is not the time to deliver a container of bikes regardless. Handling the import, repair and distribution of bicycles during a pandemic would be a distraction and dangerous. However once this pandemic lifts, we hope we can count on you to help us once again deliver bikes that will be a vital tool to their recovery now more than ever.