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Ebola’s Orphans

This article was originally published in Ebola Deeply.

By Khadi Mansaray

The organization Street Child estimates that around 12,000 children have been orphaned by Ebola in Sierra Leone. Khadi Mansaray sat down with founder and CEO Tom Dannant to discuss how the organization has adapted its model to address the needs of these children, and the challenges that remain.

Ebola Deeply: Before we take a closer look at the needs of orphaned children in Sierra Leone, let's briefly talk about the race to zero. Sierra Leone is getting close, with just a handful of cases in the last week. What do you think needs to happen now?

Dannant: In Sierra Leone, with numbers so low now, you are really looking at effective contact-tracing to hopefully close the situation out. Then it is a case of vigilance, and avoiding complacency—as it is now in Liberia. Guinea, of course, is the one we all need to look at—and it is the situation in Guinea that also really poses the greatest threat to Liberia and Sierra Leone now. It appears that there is still resistance to some of the key Ebola safety messages, especially in more remote and traditional communities. It is vital to push messages out through established, trusted sources, not via outsiders, however skilled.

Street Child had great success in rural northern Sierra Leone where we retained 1,200 local teachers for three months to educate their own communities.

Ebola Deeply: Street Child has been working largely in Sierra Leone, particularly addressing the needs of orphaned children. How have you measured your impact during the outbreak?

Dannant: Street Child has made two distinctive contributions. Firstly, we built one of the largest education/social mobilization networks in Sierra Leone. At the peak of the crisis in December, we had, on a minimal budget, 1,700 educators working to protect their own communities. We are certain this made an impact. There was nowhere where we placed properly trained educators that Ebola got massively out of hand.

For example, when Ebola reached Tambakha chiefdom, the type of remote place where it has wreaked havoc elsewhere, Ebola hardly progressed and only 13 died there. Who knows why, exactly… but we had 200 educators in Tambakha. I think that is why! I believe if there had been an emphasis across the entire response, from the outset, on intense household-to-household education, lead by locals, Ebola could have been controlled a lot more quickly—and cheaply.

Secondly, and uniquely, we launched what is still by a large distance, the biggest operation caring for children who lost a key adult to the disease. In Sierra Leone, where we have a nationwide presence, we have aimed at reaching every orphan—and indeed we have provided food aid and counseling to over 11,000 of the 12,000 we have identified. We have also been able to frequently provide clothing and bedding. And we are committed, now that school is open again, to ensuring that all Ebola orphans return to school—and are sustainable in school, by looking at supporting family livelihoods wherever necessary.

In Liberia, where our program is younger, we have aided 2,500 orphans now—more than any other organisation. And 1,600 of those are now in school (the remainder are mainly too young).

Ebola Deeply: What have you done differently to other organizations?

Dannant: Firstly, working with orphans is not an enormous leap from working with street children (many of whom are orphans of different types anyhow) to Ebola orphans—so we had the underlying skills and a model [from our existing work with street children.] We had to tweak it of course, especially since the degree of stigma orphans faced in the first months of the crisis was something new and difficult.

We had the reach, in terms of personnel. In Sierra Leone, we were in every single town in the country before Ebola —so we could react wherever the need. We also work in the rural areas. In Liberia, although we are mainly just in Monrovia, that was one of the major hotspots so we were able to make a real impact there.

Finally, we decided to do this —to care for the orphans. And having made that commitment, we just grew with the issue. We have trebled our overall staffing since the start of the crisis.

Ebola Deeply: What would you like to see happen next?

Dannant: We have to get all children back to school. It is not enough just to open the schools, which has already happened. We need to make sure everyone can access school. Even though there are efforts to reduce the costs of school this year, poor children and families need extra financial help—and encouragement.

Our greatest fear is that in the years to come we will meet so many young people, whose stories begin, “I was last in school in July 2014, before Ebola." Older children must be tempted away from the workplace, back into school.

People, especially the poorest in society, need help to restart their economic lives. And the most acute groups still need major humanitarian support—food now.

Ebola Deeply: What is the most urgent need to be addressed?

Dannant: Firstly, an acute but comparatively numerically small issue in terms of scale: at least 25 percent of the 12,000 orphans we have registered in Sierra Leone are in dire situations. Starvation is a real threat—indeed we already have reports of it. They must be fed now.

A far more wide-reaching issue—and also very time-pressing—is the need to supply farmers with seed for the coming planting seasons. For some crops, the planting season is over by mid-May. That is very soon. The consequences for children and families if some farmers go two seasons in a row (many suffered poor harvests due to Ebola in September/October) with no harvest are awful to contemplate.

Ebola Deeply: Schools are now open in Sierra Leone, but our reports suggest that classrooms are not as full as expected. Why do you think this is?

Dannant: School always opens slowly in Sierra Leone! But, after that, poverty is the big reason. Either parents have not got the money they feel they need to send their children to school, or their children are not presently available to attend school because they are at work. Fear of catching Ebola is another reason. But that will fade.

Ebola Deeply: Looking to the recovery effort, where do you think the priority lies?

Dannant: We need to physically reach the "out of school" children and their parents. We need to persuade them that an education is worth it. That is why Street Child hired 100 extra staff for our Back to School campaign. Secondly, we need to make it financially possible for families to send their children to school. In the short term, that means helping with the costs. Longer term, that means helping them re-build livelihoods—so they can afford the ongoing costs of their children’s education.

We need to keep at this. Ebola is nearly gone, great! But the recovery—back to school, livelihoods—is every bit as important. Ebola thrived in these countries because of poor healthcare capacity. But there is another equally big reason—because of the poor level of education. The low levels of education in these countries, especially among the poorest, is at the core of why it was so hard to spread and gain acceptance of the simple, life-saving Ebola-safety messages—which is what made Ebola so hard to control.

Getting everyone back to school now, and then building a proper education system in the years to come, is as sure a way of preventing a disaster like this happening again.

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Khadi Mansaray is a contributor at Ebola Deeply.

[Photo courtesy of Kate Thomas/Ebola Deeply]

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